The concept – the whole book – is extraordinary,
A man wakes up in an unfamiliar body, with no idea who he is, where he is, what he has done or what he should be doing. He will learn that he has been sent to a house party to solve the mystery of the murder of a young woman – Evelyn Hardcastle – at exactly eleven o’clock that night.
He has eight days, he will experience eight different lives; and if he fails to solve the murder by the eighth day he will be sent back to the first day to will start all over again, remembering nothing of those eight days. That cycle will continue, time and time again, until he presents the correct solution.
I was drawn from the start by the voice and the confusion of the narrator. He woke in a forest early in the morning, he heard a shot and believed that there had been a murder that he might have prevented, and he really had no idea who he was, where he was, or how he might find his way out of the forest.
All he knows is a name – Anna.
A sinister figure – who he suspects is a murderer – directs him to the stately home set in the middle of the forest. He learns that he is a house guest there, that no one has any idea who Anna is, and his urgent request to investigate a murder in the woods are not taken seriously at all. All he can do is use his wits to work out who he is and what is going on; because even when he taken up to his room, even when he looks in the mirror, he has no idea who he is, what he has done or what he should be doing.
He begins to find out a little about who he is, he learns a certain amount by listening to what is going on around him; but when he wakes up the next morning he finds that he is someone else entirely.
Later that day he begins to learn about his position and his mission from the strange and mysterious figure who will be his guide – The Plague Doctor.
As the days pass by he will try to complete that mission, but he doesn’t know who he can trust, who might be involved in the crime, and which other lives he might come to occupy; and he has no idea at all why he has fallen into such a nightmarish situation.
He does knows that he must find Anna, and understand what connects the two of them.
I thought that this book might sink under the weight of its complexity but it didn’t; and I had a wonderful time caught in the moment with the narrator and his many hosts.
I loved the different perspectives, and though I didn’t make a significant effort to see if all of the pieces of this gloriously complex puzzle fitted together I can say the things that I spotted did; and that said puzzle and its the myriad overlapping and intertwining story-lines can only have been the work of a brilliantly inventive mind.
They wouldn’t have worked if the characterisation hadn’t been so very well done. All of the hosts were complex, nuanced characters; and to make them live and breathe while maintaining the character and the story of the man who was occupying their bodies and their lives was a magnificent balancing act.
The central story had the familiarity of a Golden Age mystery, but the puzzles were shiny and new. Why was the Hardcastle family throwing a party to commemorate the anniversary of the murder of their child ten years earlier, having invited all the people who were present that day back to the decrepit home they had abandoned years ago? What was the connection between the events that were playing out in the present and the events that had played out ten years earlier?
That could have made a very good book on its own. It would have worked, because although the story is strange and fantastical, the human drama and emotions feel utterly real and its world is so utterly real that it is easy to step into it and be caught up in the story.
The book is so full of unexpected twists and turns, and I had a wonderful time wandering through its pages, knowing that I had some idea of what was going on and waiting for revelations. Those revelations came tumbling out in the final chapters, some of them sticking and some of them being blown away by the wind that bought more answers.
Does the ending live up to what came before? Not quite – but nearly – and I think it was the right ending.
It left me with a head full of thought and ideas, it left we wondering if this strangely real and fantastical world was still spinning, and it made me want to go back to the beginning and make my way though its intricate paths, examining the evidence and admiring the structure and the decoration, all over again.