Book: Abigale Hall by Lauren A. Forry
Age/Genre: Debatable (see review) Gothic-Horror-esque
Preferred Reading Environment: This is a great one to read on a commute or in and out of waiting rooms. Interruptions aren’t a big deal, it’s easy to pick up and put down.
Reading Accoutrements: Tea, of course! But make sure it hasn’t been tampered with 😉
Content Notes: Suicide, Mental Health, Aftermath of War
Apparently, every book I read this month is going to have at least a reference to the second World War. This is the second book set (partially) in London directly after World War II (If you missed my Loitering with Intent review, check it out), and H is for Hawk talked a bit about the impact of the war as well.
It’s not like I’m seeking out World War II books. In fact, Abigale Hall came to me on recommendation from my friend Deana. I’m pretty sure she said “Oh my goodness, you have to read this terrible book I just finished.” I love a good bad read as much as anyone (okay, maybe not as much as Bethany) and the description seemed intriguing, with phrases like “psychological thriller,” “gothic tradition,” and “atmospheric.”
My husband, Michael, ended up reading Abigale Hall before I did, as he was looking for a light read, and he was intrigued by the premise. As he read it, he told me a lot of his frustrations, and read me cringingly bad passages. He did keep reading it though, and thought that the ending made up for some of the dragging through the rest of the book. Michael loves B horror movies, and I think that this book has a lot of similarities to those. There are some problems with the overall execution, but certain moments are dark and gruesome and worth reading.
I almost didn’t review this book because it’s Lauren Forry’s first novel, and if I’m going to talk a lot about a book’s flaws, I’d rather pick on famous, successful authors. However, for a debut novel, there is a lot of potential here (even though there are a LOT of flaws to discuss).
Abigale Hall follows Eliza and Rebecca, sisters living in post-WWII London who are living with their aunt because their parents are both dead. Eliza is 17; Rebecca is 12. Eliza is trying to take care of her sister, please her grumpy aunt, work her job at the theatre, and find time to spend with her boyfriend, Peter. Unfortunately, Aunt Bess gets sick of the girls’ shenanigans and ships them off to Wales where Eliza is expected to be a housemaid in a creepy gothic mansion. Mr Drewery, the groundskeeper, is quiet, surly, and off-putting. Mrs Pollard, the housekeeper, is strict and menacing. Mr Brownawell, the master of the house, is reclusive, not appearing at all until later in the book. Spooky things keep happening that convince Eliza she needs to figure out what’s going on, and possibly escape with her sister. Meanwhile, Peter is scouring London trying to figure out where Eliza has disappeared to.
The book starts off with some great gross imagery. The apartment building where they live with their aunt is filled with garbage. London is in full post-war chaos – buildings crumbling, utilities lacking, supplies short. In a scene that is delightfully shudder inducing, Rebecca becomes fascinated with a dead rat.
There are a lot of issues, though. A lot. Michael and I both felt that this would have been better as a novella. Cut a lot of the repetition (we get to see Eliza go to sleep and wake up every day whether anything interesting happens or not) and extraneous details, and you could have a genuinely creepy book. The book as it is has creepy moments, but it spends a lot of time building up tension and then dropping it.
The protagonists of Abigale Hall are young adults, but I’m not sure if this is meant to be YA or Adult Fiction. One of the major flaws I saw might be a bit less egregious if this is aimed at kids. Throughout the novel, Eliza is haunted by memories of her dad’s suicide. Several times, a smell or motion temporarily takes her back to that moment. This would be fine, except that it happens AT LEAST five times. It tries to be foreboding and “hint” at the horrible thing, but after the second time, the hinting becomes hammering. The subsequent mentions made me want to shout WE GET IT. HER DAD KILLED HIMSELF. YOU ALREADY TOLD US! If the author really wanted to continue to show the trauma of that moment, she either should have made it less obvious early on, or just addressed it head-on, rather than continue to act like the reader might not know yet.
There’s also the question of the title. The house is called Thornecroft, unlike what the blurb on the inside flap says. Abigale Hall is a room within the house. The whole plot point that makes that room intriguing is basically discarded at the end, making me wonder why exactly the book is named after it. Looking at the book as a whole, that room has no real meaning or importance.
The end does have a major reveal, some violence, and some genuine creepiness-which is entertaining, but does not eliminate the flaws of the rest of the book. If anything, the end makes half the book seem pointless. The reveal of what actually has been going on means that most of the scary moments throughout the book were all imagined or misinterpreted. This is aggravated by the fact that Eliza jumps to a lot of conclusions. Whenever something happens, her imagination reaches to the closest (but not necessarily most reasonable) explanation instead of weighing other possibilities. I’m not sure if the reader is supposed to accept Eliza’s theories and be really surprised at the end, but I was just begging her to stop being the stupidest character in every horror movie.
Admittedly, the character shouldn’t necessarily be expected to act reasonably. She has gone through a lot of trauma, is severely sleep deprived throughout the book and acting on paranoia, and has a history of mental illness in her family. But I feel like the plot reveals itself as if Eliza is rational, and she’s not. Also, Eliza causes a lot of problems just by lying or not thinking more than 2 seconds ahead. I read in another review that someone really liked Forry’s use of unlikable characters, and I’ll give the book this – it did make an engaging story with only one really sympathetic character. So that’s something.
Characterization-wise, Abigale Hall has a lot of almost good characters. Eliza’s life is really complicated, and balancing her responsibility to care for her sister with her desire to live a simpler life could be done really interestingly. Instead, no motivations are really shown. The fact she likes books is her only real personality trait, much like the people calling Marie Kondo a monster because she suggested that having more books doesn’t necessarily increase the pleasure they bring you.
Mrs Pollard has glimpses of a decent backstory, but for the most part she’s shown as being mean for the fun of it, and we never learn her reason for being so dedicated to Mr Brownawell. Also, a bit of a nitpick – she was never married – Pollard was her family name, so why exactly is she a Mrs?
Peter is probably given the most depth of character. We see how his family treats him, we know what motivates him, and his thoughts give a lot of insight to how some young men probably felt right after the war. But the end of the book fails to wrap up Peter’s plot or character arc in any meaningful way.
Like I said, this book has a lot of potential. It wasn’t an unpleasant read – though there were many frustrating moments. The editing leaves a little to be desired, though the writing isn’t that distracting. I was drawn in enough by the story that I didn’t notice some of the errors that I’d found randomly just flipping through the book.
I don’t necessarily recommend Abigale Hall, but if you happen upon it and like creepy post-war fiction, you could do a lot worse.
Do you like gothic-inspired literature? Let us know your favorite scary story/book in the comments!