I’ve always had qualms about the “if you like X you’ll like Y!” comparison trick that seems to be our Twitter-era shortcut for actually saying anything meaningful about a book. And with good reason, apparently: I’ve been burnt so many times now that I’m experiencing a sort of Pavlovian response to being told, with a marketer’s certainty, that I’m going to love something. Particularly if that something is compared, by means of a peppy little design element on the front cover, with a recent blockbuster film. Often, these comparisons are a sort of critical effervescence: fizzy and alluring, but disappointingly empty. Sometimes, they’re so far off base that they’re not even playing baseball any more.
From the outset, Niki Valentine’s Possessed is an insecure teen desperate for attention and validation. There’s the “if you loved Black Swan you’ll love this!” exhortation on the front cover. There’s the bizarre intro explaining that the Valentine is, under another name, actually an award-winning, best-selling author. But neither of these succeed in their efforts of misdirection. Frankly, Possessed is a scrappy, mediocre work at best, and I’m a bit baffled by its very existence.
Set in a music academy in England, the novel follows musical prodigy Emma, a scholarship student from Manchester who’s distinctly out of place amongst the moneyed, upper-class set. Fortunately, Emma immediately meets the charismatic twins Sophie and Matilde, who become her close friends. It doesn’t take long, however, for Emma to realise that there’s something strangely possessive about the twins’ attitudes towards each other, with Sophie in particular becoming almost vicious when it seems that someone might intrude upon her relationship with Matilde. The dynamics between the trio are eerie and unbalanced, becoming more so when Matilde begins dating Henry, introducing further change into their already complex network.
There’s also the external pressure of daily life at the academy, and shy Matilde seems to be buckling under the weight of it, with the crux of it occurring when she breaks down during a masterclass. Not long after, she’s found dead, apparently having committed suicide. Emma is distraught at the loss of her friend, and between her grief and the demands of her coursework, she finds that her grip on reality seems to be slipping. The line between dream and memory becomes blurred for her, and she seems to be losing time as well. But throughout it all there’s one constant: the possessive, immensely charismatic Sophie, who just might be at the root of it all.
Possessed seeks to bring us an unreliable narrator as well as an unreliable narrative, striving to have us wonder whether Emma’s experiences are real or imagined, supernatural or explicable. But though the concept is compelling, the execution is lacking enough that if you were lining up for the guillotine you wouldn’t need to be too worried about your head coming off.
The prose reads like a sledgehammer to the brain, with every sentence so short and choppy that you have to wonder whether, unbeknownst to the rest of us, there was at some point last year a recent urgent recall of every form of punctuation other than a full-stop. Take, for example: “She knew she might have imagined it but she felt like she’d seen a ghost. She didn’t believe in that kind of thing but it was how it felt.” Or this: “Emma stared at the space where Henry had been. It was for the best. She would have liked a boyfriend like Henry, but how could she with what was going on in her life?” Or this (spoiler alert–skip on to the next paragraph if you’re sensitive to that sort of thing): “Emma was mostly happy and she didn’t feel that someone else was in control of her now. She no longer believed that she had been possessed….She had been stressed and who wouldn’t have been under the circumstances?”
The foreshadowing is not shaded so much as it is blocked in with the narrative equivalent of bolding and all-caps, and I’m slightly offended that the author thought it necessary to repeatedly, and I mean repeatedly (REPEATEDLY. REPEATEDLY. Get it? Are you sure? Because I have plenty of text colours and font options at my disposal here) highlight the behavioural distinction between the twins in order to set up an ambiguity of identity. Had I marked every occasion that Matilde’s nail biting and Sophie’s self-assuredness was mentioned my copy would have been more bristly than value pack of toothbrushes.
The hamfistedness of the writing infects the characterisation, too, and there’s a sense of these characters being little more than chunks of ectoplasm drifting around on the bookish version of the Hollywood blue screen. Because of the utter lack of depth given to Emma or any of those around her, it’s impossible to respond to her bizarre actions with anything more than a bewildered “what?” (thus I exclaimed many times while reading this book.) It’s not that there’s a narrative ambiguity at play here, it’s that this book makes absolutely no sense on any level unless one is to assume that the entirety of the narration exists in Emma’s head and this is all a retelling of Robert Cormier’s I am the Cheese or something by Philip K Dick. Unfortunately I am quite certain that this is not the case.
Since it’s still January, it’s not too late to add another New Year’s resolution to my current one of never reading comments on the internet. And that’s to never, ever read a book that’s compared with a current blockbuster film unless it’s for schadenfreudian purposes.
With thanks to Hachette Australia for the review copy
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