Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Orphan Choir

Sophie Hannah’s The Orphan Choir is a supernatural thriller with an unreliable narrator and a literary feel, comparable in some ways to Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle or Poe’s Cask of Amontillado.

 Louise Beeston seems like your average, upper-middle-class British mum. But she doesn’t feel much like a mum anymore. Her talented seven-year-old son is required to board at the school where he’s won a position on the choir, and Louise is far from ready to have an empty nest. Her husband says the choir will position their son for an illustrious career in music, and has little patience for her seemingly irrational desire to mother the boy.

 Meanwhile, their recently purchased Victorian turns out to be plagued by a noisy neighbor, who will not stop playing loud music at night no matter how many times Louise complains. And she does complain, with great diligence, feeling that to give up on complaining would be to somehow admit that she is in the wrong.

 To the reader, Louise’s first-person narration offers clues that more is going on than she understands or perhaps is willing to admit. Her state of mind initially comes across as tense and obsessive, and much of the suspense in the novel derives from wondering exactly how she’s going to crack. I did not enjoy that sensation so much, especially through the pages and pages from her “noise diary,” which she keeps to document her neighbor’s parties.

 Despite that, Hannah’s writing always has a kind of brisk immediacy that feels very fresh and solid, and that’s true of this book too. She’s the author of the popular Zailer and Waterhouse British mysteries, which open with Little Face, a book I really enjoyed. The Orphan Choir has the same good writing, the same deft hand at the wheel, but it’s a very different kind of book. I grabbed it off of the New Books shelves here at Newport, without bothering to read the cover because I like her so much, and I think I may have enjoyed it more if I’d realized going in that it’s not a mystery but a ghost story. So I’m letting you know right from the start—things are going to start out peculiar, and get downright creepy.

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