"Willow Walk" SJI Holliday
She bangs the door shut. Hard. Starts walking. Fast. Something pings at her. Get away from here. You need to get away. Behind her in the house, no one flinches. No one stirs. No one breathes.
And so begins SJI Holliday's second book in her Banktoun series. As if the cover isn't eerie enough. Fairgrounds - like clowns - are atmospheric and foreboding places and it immediately sets the mood of the book. With "Willow Walk" Holliday has written a great crime detective story with prose that is at times deeply unsettling and unnerving.
"Willow Walk" has three threads with three central protagonists and a few more important characters circling around. It is set in Banktoun, a small fictional town in Scotland and centres on Marie, DS Davie Gray and 16 year old Laura. At first the link between Laura and Marie's stories seems unrelated but as the novel continues, Holliday cleverly intertwines the plots to a climatic finale.
DS Gray is investigating an increase in local drug crime amongst the teenagers - particularly a new drug that has catastrophic effects which has caused several deaths. Then a woman is brutally attacked by an escaped inmate from a psychiatric hospital and suddenly DC Gray finds himself swept up the hunt to track down this dangerous man. As the novel develops, Holliday uses the drug crime storyline and the psychiatric hospital to explore themes of addiction, dependency, vulnerability, obsession and madness in various different guises and through various different characters. I found this really effective and it added another depth to the story.
Laura is 16 and in love with Mark. They get together at the fairground which is a fantastic backdrop to capture the hazy, aphrodisiac kind of illusion of true love which almost hypnotises Laura and certainly drags her under some kind of spell.
"The tingle hits her hard, shoots down her spine and there's a moment: dance music blaring out all around them, shrieks and laughter, the pop of rifles, the ringing of bells, the mingling scents of hot dogs and candy floss, the thick smell of engine oil from the ancient rides, the thumps of the engine dodgems bumping each other...it all swirls around them both.......lost in a daze."
Laura is a likeable character. An impressionable age; falling in love for the first time, taking new risks and in the transition to adulthood. Led by desire, her perception of events is unreliable and her vulnerability is clear to the reader as we try to figure out just how good to be true this Mark really is. There's a great passage when Laura visits a fortune teller at the fair and during her reading the fortune teller starts to stammer and fall over her words, trying "to rub them all together, removing the pattern and the story they've told...." Holliday creates a really palpable sense of impending doom but we are as quick to dismiss it as Laura. She has found love. She is safe.
But soon we see things are not as they seem and Laura is propelled into a much more threatening and dangerous situation that arises from a series of coincidences, revelations and intertwining relationships as the characters story lines begin to impact on one another.
The passages about the fairground are highly memorable. Holliday conveys the 'epileptic' flashing lights, the smells, the confusion, euphoria, shrill screams, tinny music, colour and artificial vibrancy of a fairground effortlessly in a way that not only transports you to that place but also haunts you. These glimmers of dreamlike prose sprinkle a kind of supernatural feel over some of the pages which I liked. Holliday effectively controls the balance in her voice between a gritty realism, violent, graphic crime scenes and mesmerising prose.
I was most fascinated by Marie though. We soon realise that she too is perhaps not as reliable as we thought. As Davie begins to delve deeper into his investigation, he also becomes anxious of her strange behaviour. There is clearly a terrible back story to discover here - and my goodness, aren't we desperate to have it revealed to us! She is introverted, a victim, unhappy, stressed. As her past is referred to more fully, Holliday restrains from falling into a gratuitous detail but still the revelations are deeply harrowing.
But then at times, Marie is unable to help herself and her behaviour to us as the rational bystanders is perhaps harder to understand. However her relationships with her brother is tremendously complicated. Holliday really exploits this idea of secrets, shame, obsession, love and sibling relationships and makes it a compelling aspect of the book.
By the end of the book I was full of questions about her and as chilled by her behaviour as her brother Graeme's. Graeme is also a very well developed character. He is as unnerving and terrifying as some of the greatest psychopaths in thriller fiction. His letters, which are inserted between chapters, are so menacing that they really put the reader on edge or even high alert as we can barely watch to see his role in the story unfold.
My absolutely favourite part was Chapter 35. This was some of the most beautiful description I have read in a crime thriller. It was so absorbing. I could feel the weight of silence, see the camera's panoramic sweep of the room, felt completely mesmerised by the words painting such a visually intriguing scene and was totally wrapped up in the moment. The sense of unnatural calm, stillness and silence was hugely evocative. There are some scenes in the book which literally linger in the air and make the reader feel like they have pressed the pause button on a film so they have a chance to really look around and take in every detail of the devastation around them.
There's a lot to think about in "Willow Walk". There are themes of siblings, relationships, violation, innocence, bonds, addiction, drugs and madness. Some of the themes and ideas crept up on me and left me pondering for a few days after. Some of the scenes came back to me like mini flashbacks of a bad dream in the time after I'd out the book away. It's like a film that will stays in your head long after you've finished watching the rolling credits. Particularly as Holliday plants a few clues in the epilogue hinting at the next instalment in the Banktoun series.
I really enjoyed "Willow Walk". I liked the writing style a lot and I liked the various different characters and how they interacted together. I read "Black Wood" a long time ago and although "Willow Walk" is the next instalment, it equally works as a stand alone and doesn't need to be read in sequence.
"Willow Walk' was published in 2016 and The Damselfly - the 3rd Banktoun book -is out in Februrary. I can't wait!
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