Fiction – paperback; Transit Lounge; 246 pages; 2017.
It might only be two months into 2018, but I think it’s fairly safe to say that Lois Murphy’s Soon will be the strangest — and most intriguing — book I read all year.
This deliciously creepy debut novel defies categorisation: is it dystopian? literary fiction? horror? The answer, I suspect, is a combination of all three.
I’m not much of a one for fantastical, supernatural tales, but there was something about this story, which compelled me to keep turning the pages long into the night. (Lisa, at ANZLitLovers, who reviewed this book last year, felt the same way.)
An isolated town
The setting is Nebulah, a fictional town in outback Western Australia. Woodford, the nearest town, is more than two hours drive away and that town is a long way from anywhere else, too.
One winter’s evening in 1998 a ghostly mist descends on Nebulah. This mist, swirling with apparitions and evil spirits, has the power to kill anyone caught in its path. The only way to escape it is to hide indoors, with all the doors and windows locked, until the sun arrives the next morning to burn it off.
We’d run for the house as the mist around us started to transform itself into figures, howling faces and reaching arms, elongated grasping fingers snatching at us, gleeful. Thankfully it was still hazy enough to evade — we wrenched ourselves through it and I slammed the door as it streamed after us up the porch steps, screeching with delight at this unexpected opportunity. As I flicked the locks it was pressed against the windows, a chilling kaleidoscope of bones and teeth against the glass.
This nightmarish situation has confounded all the scientists. No one seems to know where the mist came from and what its purpose is. But now a once humble community of 500 or so people has dwindled to just a handful — and the only reason these people have stayed behind is that they have nowhere else to go.
The story is narrated by Pete Macintosh, a tough character, who has a soft spot for two women who have remained in town: Li, a Cambodian refugee, who has a successful business growing organic fruit; and Milly, a widow still grieving for her husband who died more than a decade ago.
Pete is a former policeman, cancer survivor and widower with an estranged adult daughter. In other words, he’s a bit of a loner. But he has a community spirit and he cares deeply for his neighbours.
A menacing mist
The story charts a year in the life of the town and shows how the mist — perhaps a metaphor for pollution or changing economic circumstances — affects the stalwarts who stay behind.
The characterisation is superb. We get a real insight into the fears (and hopes) of not just Pete and Li and Milly, but we meet well drawn subsidiary characters along the way, including Denham, the disbelieving policeman from Woodford; Alex, the clairvoyant from out-of-town who warns Pete to leave by winter solstice; and Anne, the visiting student, who is bewitched by the mist and wants to examine it more closely, putting her life and the life of her friends in mortal danger.
The story, as I am describing it, probably sounds ludicrous, but there’s something about Murphy’s literary prose style that makes the whole idea of a menacing mist, alive with the town’s dead people, seem totally authentic. I never once felt I had to suspend belief.
And the tension and suspense that builds up is almost unbearable, as the taut narrative races towards a heart-palpitating climax that had me wanting to bolt my front door and draw all the curtains against the night. The denouement is powerful, memorable — and as near to perfect an ending as one could expect.
If you haven’t guessed already, Soon is a terrifying tale that will make your heart race. It’s atmospheric, spine-chilling, dark and twisted, and probably the most original novel I’ve read in a long while. But it’s more than just a macabre horror story: there’s commentary here about what happens to country towns when industry comes to an end, how society treats those without money to fall back on, and the importance of friendship and a shared purpose as the glue that holds communities together.
Note that Soon hasn’t yet been published in the UK, though you can buy a Kindle version from Amazon. I ordered my copy direct from the Australian book store Readings.com.au
This is my 2nd book for #AWW2018.