“We were watching telly the night Nan burnt the house down.”
Quite a start, yes? Celine Kiernan‘s Into the Grey (Candlewick, 2014) is the story of a family trying to pull themselves together after a disaster in the form of their senile grandmother accidentally burning their house to the ground. Oops! The Finnerty family packs up their lives and moves to a seaside cottage where they had spent raucous summers, but something is different this time around. The house is battered by winter winds, and there is a presence in the house with them, a presence that fixates on teenaged twin brothers Pat and Dom. When Dom begins to show sign of not just being haunted but possessed by the spirit of a young boy, it’s up to Dom to save him by delving into his family’s past, exploring nightmareish dreamscapes of WWI, and going “into the grey” of the beyond.
This novel starts with a bang that unfortunately doesn’t follow through to the end. The first chapter, which is all about the sudden burning of the house, rips through you with such urgency that I thought for sure I was going to love it. I felt like I was completely hooked after the first chapter, but as the narrative progressed I found those hooks loosening their grips. I think this is because the writing is unfortunately fairly uneven. There are times when Kiernan’s prose is intimidatingly beautiful. Have a look at this passage, for example:
“We came upon the main street of Skerries with the sky pressing down on the houses and the rain pummeling all the colour from the air.”
So good, right? Unfortunately the sombre effect of such lovely prose is constantly disrupted by enthusiastic statements from Dom with exclamation points at the end that for some reason drove me up a god damn wall. I think because the tone of the rest of the narrative is so bleak and mournful, to have these almost juvenile sounding exclamations thrown in there almost always jarred me out of the trance of story, so that I was aware of the separation between myself and novel, of the artificiality of the book itself.
The story itself also felt uneven. The action-driven plotline failed to ever actually feel truly frightening, which I could tell it was trying to be. There’s something really sad about about a book or a movie that is trying to be scary but just isn’t, which can really only be matched by the sadness of watching horrible standup. I felt much more intrigued by the dialogue heavy portions of the narrative that reveal the connections between an “auld fella” from the village and the twins’ Nan than I ever did by the supposedly frightening action in the plot. Also, how in the god damn hell do you not notice that your son is basically a corpse that gives you frostbite burns when you touch him? Finnerty parents, you get big fat F minuses for your parenting skills. What a couple of ding dongs.
On the plus side, even though the story itself is uneven, its setting in 1970s Ireland is strong, and it is easy to feel immersed in the time and place. I also loved spending time with the elderly characters, Dom and Pat’s Nan and the auld fella whose name I honestly can’t remember and don’t feel like looking up; there was an interesting exploration of the danger of dismissing the elderly as senile or plain old loopy, since they were the only ones other than Pat and his sister who seemed to realize that Dom was an animated corpse.
Bottom line is, I wasn’t in love with this book. Kiernan’s definitely able to spin a pretty sentence, but spin a gripping novel, not so much.
For music, let’s go with a song that plays a big role in the story of the Finnerty twins, “It’s You” by Toots and the Maytals.
Where I got it: ARC from the publisher (Candlewick) at the ALA summer conference.