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6 October 2020

Review - The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V E Schwab

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue
V E Schwab
Titan Books, 6 October 2020
Available as: HB, 560pp, e
Source: Advance e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN: 9781785652509
Snap verdict: This is what you should be reading

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue via NetGalley.

I finished this book, closed my Kindle, and just sat there, trying to work out what had HAPPENED. I've read quite a lot by V E Schwab (not everything - she is prolific and writes for many different audiences) and I THOUGHT I knew what to expect.

But this... this was simply astonishing. A game changer of a book, for the reader (and, I'd hope, for the author - but that's perhaps presumptuous to say).

It is SO good.

A book to sink into, to lose oneself in.

A book that plays games, switches, dives and comes back from a different direction, targeting you right in your feelings, tying you in knots, delivering the kill and then... then doing it all AGAIN with different feelings, different knots and a different kill.

OK, stop babbling David. (I told a friend on Twitter that reviewing this I might just gush and you can see, here I am, gushing). Let's try and get hold of this protean, gorgeous wonder of a book and review it properly.

Addie (Adeline) LaRue is a young peasant woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary village in France in the late 17th century. The great drama, great crisis of her life is that while she longs for more breadth, experience and more... just more life, her parents (as parents will) want her to marry, have children, be settled. She dodges this for a while but not, oh, the wedding bells are ringing and the dress is being laced upon Addie and the life that goes with the dress is being laced on her... the world is closing in.

So Addie makes a bargain. A bargain she really shouldn't, with one of the dark things in the wood, one of the powers you really, really shouldn't pray to - in case they answer. And so, Addie's soul is in hock and she's cut loose from that village and while she gets that breadth of life (well, sort-of life) that she wants, Addie discovers that the wider world is a cruel and cold place and that there's nowhere in it for her. Addie can't make a mark on the world ('If a person cannot leave a mark, do they exist?'), she can't be remembered once out of sight. She can have a love affair, but she has to restart it every morning. If she rents a room for the night, she'll be turfed out as soon as the landlord or landlady turns their backs and another customer arrives. With no persistence in memory, Addie can't earn money, can't live anywhere. She exists on the margins. All else changes but Addie stays the same, as those she knew, those she loved, crumble to dust. And across the years, she's tormented by the creature - the god, the devil? - that she bargained with. Luc, as she calls him, is, in a sense, her creation. Only Luc rememberers her, only Luc remains.

It becomes clear, over the years, that Luc wants more than her soul. That she, knowing nobody else remembers her, nobody else will ever know her, wants, needs him. Hatred and love dance together in a whirl that passes down the years in meetings and partings, in a strange kind of game as Luc tempts Addie to wish oblivion for herself, as she bargains with him for an alternative.

Everything comes to a head in New York where for the first time in three centuries, Addie senses change, senses a loophole in her deal with Luc, when a young man remembers her.

The way that Schwab builds up the fantasy of Addie's life is stunning, believable, full of pathos and horror and desperate desire. Driven to the margins of the world, she makes an existence for herself inspiring art and artists (a recurring theme here), exploring literature (she 'reads of strange lands, and monsters, and men who can't ever go home...')  She, literally, can't paint or draw or write herself (a cruel twist from Luc when child Addie was so invested in her sketching and drawing) but she can be a Muse. What a way to encapsulate the role of a woman in a male dominated society - just the thing she was running from when she made her bargain in the woods - to be erased, voiceless, seen only by the traces left across the years in men's works.

So we gradually learn about the events that have made Addie, her victories and defeats in that endless struggle, the moments of respite and the moments of horror, and we really, really, get to know the person she has become and to admire her for what she's achieved. It's powerful writing. The central idea - and its working out - could fill a book and it would be a good book.

But - ands this is really a glorious thing - Schwab DOESN'T STOP THERE. She has much more for us. Meet Henry, an uncertain young man in a world full of sharp teeth. I really can't tell you too much about him because spoilers but, yes, he comes into Addie's life and, yes, he can remember her and yes, the book turns out to be about what that means to each of them. This is effectively a whole new layer of story. It's a love story, told in the sweaty clubs and avant garde venues of Bohemian New York - a city Addie knows well. It's the story of a man who never feels, somehow, that he is quite enough, a man who fears the darkness in quite a different sense from Addie. If this book made me fall in love with Addie, it made me fall for Henry, too. His issues are quite different to hers but, like Addie, Schwab makes Henry real, human and most of all, she makes him matter. It's gorgeous writing, so sad at times, and really, that story - Henry's life - is another that could be a book in itself.

But it's not, and then we have what happens when the two come together... they're all one book and they are all the same story. Reaching the end, I read it more and more slowly, not wanting it to end. I wanted to stay immersed in the world of Addie and Henry and Luc, wanted to see the relationships flicker and dance, the pulls of desire and love and hate, to see Schwab whittling these three down to their essence.

Who, what is Luc? At one level I don't know, we're never exactly told.

Who, what is Luc? At another level, we all know. We've all met him. We've danced that dance, surrendered - or not - made our lives despite him, or with him. Luc cannot be defeated, cannot be pleaded with, placated, bribed or tricked. Only bargained with. And he drives a hard bargain...

The Invisible life of Addie LaRue is without a shadow of a doubt my favourite book read this year (that's 97 so far). V E Schwab was already an impressive writer but I think this is by far the best she's written yet (that I've read). Apart from the handling of the ominous, dark and romantic themes here, Schwab has a knack for getting to the heart of things in her writing: we hear of 'A Fall woman indulging in a second Spring', or how when Addie first makes love's is lightning through her limbs, it is fire through her core, it is longing between her legs' or of Henry's family sitting at table 'like an awkward Ashkenazi imitation of a Rockwell painting' or of a 'fundraising smile'. In places the prose adopts the pacing of a teary ballad ('A boy is sick of his broken heart. Tired of his storm-filled brain') or a dark folksong ('Am I the devil or the darkness?'). In others it revels in the wonder of moments of caught amidst the darkness - Addie's memory of the beauty of stars, something the modern world doesn't afford, of the gradual unfolding of New York in the springtime for a pair of lovers.

I think I'm gushing again. I want to keep quoting bits of this book, saying, look at this, look at that, read that bit. I should just say "read it!" and stop there.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is simply leagues ahead. For me, reading it - and thinking about it after - was like that moment watching a great athlete running in an 800 or 1600m race when the winner simply opens up distance from the others and claims a victory which afterwards always seems preordained. Simply stunning.

For more information about this book see the publisher's website here. Or read this excellent review from Dave at

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