Advanced reader copy received from publisher (Bantam) via NetGalley
Release date (UK) 2nd December 2014
I’d never heard of Rebecca James before but when I spotted this book on NetGalley I was immediately attracted to the gothic-style cover and the blurb intrigued me. Having just finished it, I’ll definitely be seeking out her first novel, Beautiful Malice, soon.
The story opens with a brilliantly eerie prologue, an almost dreamlike sequence conveying Tim’s memories of an old, gothic mansion “Fairview is a maze of dark passages and shadows, steep staircases that twist and turn in nightmarish knots.” The prose is elegant and effective, and I was immediately sucked into the story of Fairview, Anna and Tim.
Tim is a likeable, laid-back surfer dude. He has little direction in his life; working nights at his Dad’s restaurant and sleeping on his ex-girlfriend’s sofa. Something has to change and his ex, Lilla prompts him to start searching for a new place to live.
As luck would have it, Tim comes across the perfect place on his first try. A room at Fairview; a vast, impressive manor which towers above the other houses on a flashy street. The house is stunning and the rent is cheap, the only catch is his housemate, Anna London.
Anna suffers from agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder which means that she has a crippling fear of leaving the house. Whenever she ventures past the gates of the manor, she is overcome with panic attacks. The situation is obviously inconvenient, so a condition of Tim living there will be that he has to help her out; getting groceries and other provisions which Anna can’t easily access. Tim is an easy-going guy and, awed by the grand old house, he amiably agrees to the strange conditions and promptly moves in.
But soon after he’s moved in, he starts to question his hasty decision. Anna is strange, cold and impenetrable, he hears her crying during the night and she spends an inordinate amount of time in the attic. Then, strange incidents start happening in the dead of night. There are some genuinely creepy scenes, but throughout the main focus is the delicate relationship forged between Tim and Anna.
James intercepts Tim’s first-person point of view with short third-person chapters which reveal the events from Anna’s perspective. In these parts she illustrates the debilitating condition of agoraphobia with clarity, describing the crippling anxiety and panic attacks Anna experiences when she tries to leave the house in an eloquent and emotive manner. It is clear that Anna is extremely fragile and damaged due to events in her past, but what happened to make her this way? What could cause a happy-go-lucky, confident young woman to become a shell of her former self, trapped inside the gloomy, gothic mansion? That’s what will keep you reading – I was dying to find out.
Whilst Tim is adjusting to his peculiar new living arrangements, he is still hung up on his ex-girlfriend Lilla; he checks her Facebook regularly and pretty much drops everything he is doing whenever she calls. Lilla is brash, bubbly and vivacious; the polar opposite of Tim’s new housemate and the two characters perfectly juxtapose each other.
The story took a little bit of a young adult romance vibe at times as Tim mopes over his former lover, which I found a little frustrating, but that was before I really understood where the story was going. As it unfolds it becomes clear that Lilla is much more than just eye candy for Tim; she plays a key part in the tale.
Sweet Damage was a great read; engaging, gripping and suspenseful. However, I’d have trouble classing it as a mystery thriller, it’s more of a suspenseful romance, which is aimed towards a young adult audience. A lot of time is spent on the characters and their relationships but they are built so well, this is what makes the story so engrossing.