One of the many functions of characterisation is to create a bond between a readership and the events happening in the story. The concept is pretty simple: if you relate to a character you are better able to relate to plot events because you take on their perspective; it’s not so much about being a fly on the wall, as being a fly in the eye. B.R.Collins knows how this works, and she exploits the technique well in her Y.A fiction, but her second novel ‘A Trick of the Dark‘ is a particular example of near perfection in this field. In the opening chapters you meet Annis and her troubled elder brother Zach, and instantly you are met with the circumstances which have created their misery. Family betrayal and blame have ruined their lives, and being uprooted to France for some bonding isn’t helping. The abandoned house nearby is a place of solace and rebellion, but it hides a secret neither sibling sees coming. A wall crumbles and a mysterious figure appears from the shadows. These are chilling ideas on their own, but the realities of the matter work to further disturb and distort how we think about childhood, death, sorrow, love and family relationships, all the while maintaining a tension which will keep you reading past bedtime. It’s a supernatural-thriller come horror, and a masterful interpretation of the experience of dysfunctional adolescence.
Intermittent snatches of Zach’s diary compliment a well-written third-person prose, and break into the mind of a boy desperate to reclaim his humanity, but only at the end, when Collins forces her readers to endure an unbearable choice to a devastating effect, does the power of these snippets reach their climax. Zach is the essence of teenage angst, presented in a realistic manner. Subtle aspects of his personality glue the entire plot-line together with several underlying themes. That’s another element of fiction Collins’ work is a find example of: themes, more specifically, presenting them so quietly that as they step into the house and stride confidently up the stairs, you still don’t hear a floor board sound above the necessary squeak. Occasionally they jump out of wardrobes and poke you on the shoulder, but when you turn you are only aware that somewhere lurks the darker undertones, and that stays with you.
For an older audience, although I wouldn’t consider myself much older than the demographic, the plot events are predictable. Half-way through the reality of events are explained, and I was deflated when I realised I was expecting exactly what was detailed. However, the plot then diverts in an entirely new direction withdrawing focus from the matter-at-hand and giving it over to what-exactly-should-they-do-about-it. I think it’s also a shame Collins suddenly introduces a character just a few chapters from the end, in a desperate attempt to fill the otherwise obvious plot-hole. The trouble is, his purpose is overtly stated, and Collins never takes the necessary time to make us care about him, and counteracts the wonderful development of her two main entities. Strands of plot are left hanging in the wind; we never know how the house does what it does, just a brief indication of why it might, and while that’s not too distracting, it did make me believe I missed something significant after completion.
The style is punchy, bald and quick, and unrelenting. Collins knows how to work her two chosen view-points together, and does so seamlessly, integrating the quieter description of Annis’ struggle to help her brother, with Zach’s blunt private thoughts not only in two different narrative voices, but two different time periods. The contrast is what kicks the intrigue into gear, like before and after photographs of a terrible crime-scene. The ending is unbearable; so unbearable and inevitable it’s beautiful and liberating. Collins forces choices upon her audience we might never otherwise be presented with, choices about humanity and happiness, and compassion and fear. Especially poignant is how, despite the edge of the fantastic, it all feels possible.
A unique, creative and powerful read, fringed with the notion that often love and altruism are fraught with brutal decisions.
(My initial reaction to the novel, written as part of a regular blog, can be witnessed here if interested.)