I did say to Michael that, for obvious reasons, I wouldn’t review fellow Simon and Schuster authors (with the exception of my test review using the excellent Sea of Trolls), but having just finished Century I feel compelled to break the rule.
Except for the single page of (unnecessary) prologue there is a beautiful lack of scene-setting or explanation in this book. We have a bitter, frozen winter’s night in a dusty and decaying mansion. We have an odd shadowy family living out the night as if it was their day. We have ghosts and shades of other lives woven into the twilight world. We have a seamless passage of time, a well-practised routine ‘ boiled egg for evening ‘breakfast’, studies with the governess Galatea, moonlit walks out across the frosted lawns, pre-dawn bedtime stories in the nursery parlour ‘ that makes the succession of nights hard to tell apart. And at the centre we have Mercy and her sister Charity, creeping through this existence like ancient mechanical toys.
Yet Mercy has seen a different ghost for once, something new in this world of the totally familiar and unchanging. A woman caught under the ice in the distillery pond.
Like the slightest feathery kiss on Sleeping Beauty’s lips, the ghost’s appearance (and then a snowdrop hidden under her pillow when nothing grows outside) nudges Mercy just enough for her to yawn and stretch and wonder at the curiousness of her existence. Where are her memories? Where is the sunlight? Where is her mother?
The quality of the writing is such that the reader has been drawn easily into the drowsy, whispering nights, fascinated and a little spooked perhaps. But don’t assume that this is a simple ghost story. Mercy’s slight rebellion, which grows and grows in momentum, sucking all her family into a new course, reveals an explanation that is complex and challenging enough to belong to Douglas Adams or Red Dwarf, with a pinch of Doctor Faustus or Mrs. Coulter thrown in. It is a further tribute to the author that even this explanation comes to us utterly believably and with almost some sort of inevitability.
A deserving prize-winner, there is little to fault in this debut novel. I did look for a final twist at the end, but perhaps I was simply being greedy.