4 October 2014

Review: Rooms by Lauren Oliver

Lauren Oliver
Hodder & Stoughton, 25/9/14
Hardback, 339 pages

I was sent this book for review by the Amazon Vine programme.

There is a house.  It is haunted.  Someone inherits and comes to the house and is scared...

I don't know how many times I've read this story.  Sometimes the story is scary, sometimes it's not.  Sometimes the focus is on the mystery - where did the ghost come from? - and how the protagonist can solve (and save himself or herself).  Sometimes, it's more of an excuse for a frightfest.

So I had some reservations about this book.  Lauren Oliver triumphantly inverts the template in "Rooms".

Yes, there is a haunted house.

Yes, people arrive.  Richard Walker has died, and his estranged family (mother - alcoholic Caroline. Daughter - Minna. Son - tortured teen Trenton. Granddaughter - oblivious Amy) come to Coral River settle up.  But rather than being terrorized by the ghosts (needy, prim Alice: blowsy Sandra) the Walkers bring their own issues, their own histories with them and catalyse a healthy dose of self-reflection by the house's occupants.

The story is told in a rather lovely counterpoint, in the voices of successive characters both living and departed, focused in turn on each of the rooms in the house.  As well as exploring it in space, we also go backwards and forwards in time, to see both the earlier lives of the Walkers, and the origin of the ghosts themselves.  This is a haunting told, at least in part, from the Other Side: we see the shock of Alice and Sandra as they recognise the children, grown up and gauche, no longer the little angels they knew. There's a great deal of sadness - both Alice and Sandra have their secrets, their regrets, and some of these emerge as the Walkers explore the house, turning up evidence of this and that.

We also see the family - especially Caroline - trying to come to terms with their own past.  The ghosts are trapped by their history, with no possibility of escape: will the newcomers escape that fate?  Will Caroline be able to put aside her drinking, Trenton... just grow up (I liked Trenton, he's a wonderful evocation of a moody, uncertain teenager, but oh is he annoying at times!), Minna stop chasing anything in trousers (the mailman; the funeral director; even the policeman who calls in to ask about a missing girl)?

It's a marvellous way to explore a web of family relationships, all made flesh in the substance of the house itself, the same house which gives reality and form to the two ghosts.

A completely different take on the ghost story,  and a great read.

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