What a strange novel this is. The writing is literary fiction at its best. This is what kept me reading the book, as there’s little plot to speak of. I liked it better than The Essex Serpent (which I wasn’t a fan of) and it’s an impressive debut.
John Cole, a bookseller, decides to leave his lonely life behind. He drives into the countryside, where his car breaks down. He finds a grand isolated house and the people there mistake him for a visitor they were expecting, a man with a similar name. John is drawn into their friendly company and then not a lot happens for the rest of the book. It’s a hot summer but there’s a storm coming and everyone is behaving eccentrically. There’s a mental health angle to the story, which I liked, and it’s subtly done. However, I didn’t take to any of the characters. They seemed to be distanced from me despite their actions being described in detail. Since the novel revolves around the characters rather than the plot, my enjoyment wasn’t high.
Although I found the concept intriguing, my interest waned after about halfway. The book isn’t long, so I finished it without resorting to skim-reading. I appreciated the writing style but sometimes I felt frustrated. The characters were always touching each other on the shoulder. It happened often enough to annoy me. At first, there was a gothic tone to the story, with the decaying house and suspiciously kind welcome to a stranger. This wasn’t sustained and I was confused as to what sort of book I was reading. I’d gone into it open-minded but the blurb made the story sound more mysterious than it was. An endorsement by novelist Sarah Waters on the front cover describes the book as a ‘beautiful, dream-like narrative’. I’d agree with this. The heat-drowsy atmosphere contributes to the feeling that this could be John’s dream.
In summary, this is an atmospheric and well-written novel but I found it a little odd and directionless.