Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Say Her Name, by James Dawson

A brilliant, spine-chilling take on the Bloody Mary-lives-in-the-mirror legend that is genuinely scary and ridiculously tense. This is the first James Dawson book I've read and I ordered the other two straight away and put the 3rd on pre-order. That's how good it was.

The novel starts 13 years ago with 15 year old Taylor Keane rattling around in her family home- just out of boarding school for the holidays. Alone in the house, she goes to investigate a persistent drip, drip, drip noise in the bathroom and is never seen again.

13 years later, Bobbie Rowe and her prestigious girls' boarding school friends have snuck some local boys in for Halloween and are sharing ghost stories in the hut at the end of the sports field. As ever, the legend of Bloody Mary comes up- they argue about the details, but they know that Mary was once a Piper's Hall lady like them, that she was a weird loner and seeing a boy from the village- and that she killed herself.

Out of her depth with the elite kids of the rich and famous, Bobbie keeps quiet, sticking to best mate Naya, the glamorous American, like glue. Bored by the same old stories and well aware of the illegality of the company, she wants nothing more than to go back to her room and finish off her book. So she's as surprised as anyone when she finds herself volunteering, along with local eye-candy Caine and Naya to prove to mean-girl Sadie that the legend is kid's stuff, nonsense. Saying "Bloody Mary" five times into a mirror, surrounded by candles at midnight cannot possibly summon Mary into the real world. It's kid's stuff.

Needless to say, Mary is very much a reality, leaving threatening notes for her three latest victims, visiting them in dreams, sharing her life and her misery. Haunting them, getting stronger and more dangerous as the days tick by, testing their sanity and their nerve to the limit. Pursued by an anguished and occasionally corporeal spirit, Naya, Bobbie and Caine are embroiled in a furious race against the clock to uncover the secrets surrounding Mary's disappearance in the 1950s in order to set her spirit free and hopefully to avoid meeting the same fate.

James Dawson is a ridiculously talented author- not only does he write realistic teens (more difficult than it seems), but he also treads an unbearably enigmatic line between benevolent misery and malevolent fury when it comes to the character of Mary. Is she a tragic, forsaken victim or a vengeful and merciless killer? The reader knows as much as Bobbie does, as she begins to dig into Mary's past. Her findings get creepier and creepier, and even though the reader is never sure how they should feel about Mary, it's clear she's pretty bloody terrifying.

I loved sassy, carefree Naya, she complimented Bobbie's logical, methodical investigation well. Bobbie and Caine are really relatable, easy to read characters- they're incredibly solid and really believable as regular teens against the world. They're so likable; half resigned to their early demise but still going all out to fight to the end. I liked how they switched between being goofy and flirty, then being annoyed with themselves for flirting in such a life or death crisis...then giggling about it. I loved how normal they were and how realistically they reacted to being in a paranormal, unchartered territory situation. Their dialogue and reactions were absolutely spot on, which I find I always look for in books for teens. When authors understand teens, it really comes across in their writing; their characters don't seem awkward or forced, there's no cringey slang or try-too-hard modernisms. I spend all day every day surrounded by teens so it's easy to catch out teen characters that don't really work.

Say Her Name is a credible combination of The Ring and a traditional ghost story slash detective tale, with added bullying issues, schoolyard politics and position-of-trust abuse thrown in. It's a breathless, tense and brilliantly pacy read that has an absolutely huge appeal. I loved the ending, which I don't want to give away...but the idea that doing the right thing, the thing that anybody in their right mind would consider the noble and brave thing, and it possibly turning out to be horrifically dangerous and wrong is terrifying.

Students ask me for horror books all the time, and much of the time I'm stumped, because they're often not actually anywhere near scary. I think this book is going to be getting checked out a lot in future. I'd definitely recommend it to horror film fans, or readers looking for a good supernatural chill.

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