January 22, 2016

Taylor Carre-Riddell

13131625Sweet Damage, published in 2013, is the psychological thriller/horror novel that makes Rebecca James one of the most coveted writers in 52 countries worldwide. The novel delves into the daily life of a young surfer, Tim Ellison, who moves into a wealthy estate in Fairview, Sydney. His housemate, Anna London, suffers from agrophobia; meaning that the world of Sydney that sprawls out beyond her letterbox gives her unbearable anxiety attacks. Tim is soon caught between Anna’s obsession with her attic and the strange dynamics between her and her only friends, the eerily formal Fiona and Marcus.  Tim is not  just an innocent observer…His own less than healthy fixation with ex-girlfriend, a very well written manipulative social butterfly is starting to get the better of him.

James uses simple, colloquial language to the daily life of the ordinary Sydney citizen. We witness the nuances that constitute Tim’s life in a way that fosters the atmosphere of lovely “Sunday afternoon” reading. Surfing. Beer. Getting off work early. In a clever and intriguing fashion that sustains the novel, James doesn’t delve into the impact that this quintessentially Australian lifestyle has on our mental state, morals or values. She knows Tim’s internal dialogue will have us instantly familiarised and at ease with his easy going outlook on life in no time.

Tim’s relatively contented soul serves as a direct contrast to Anna. Whilst Tim’s character function helps us relish his beloved “beach-meets-city” culture, Anna seemingly serves as the fulcrum for most of the chills of the story. We get to appreciate Anna’s perspective for selected parts of the story, with particular focus on her guilt at the death her infant son Benjamin. Although it takes a while to flesh out and deepen the significance of this guilt, the novel soon earns its ‘haunted’ façade.

The horror is relatable because James doesn’t twist the parameters of reality- she illuminates the horrors that already exist within. No matter what time of day it is or how many lights you have on, you will get chills. James unapologetically assures you that a box of spiders could be waiting for you, wherever you are.

Depicting the normal hum-drum of daily life inevitably means that we are left waiting for these ‘box of spider’ moments every 20 pages. After a while, reading about Tim’s surfing and even his budding feelings for Anna gets a bit tedious. It’s clear these feelings serve as a character arc, but we must be patient for them to come into realisation. Patience is rewarded though- like any novel of the thriller genre, the last 80 pages are searing with taboo, emotion and trauma.

Sweet Damage’s chilling charm comes from its concise language, complex and earthy characters whose lives are detailed to a delightful level, and the narrative twists that make you think about twice about the not-so-dormant horrors that might lay waiting in your own house.

– Taylor Carre-Riddell

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