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Review: A Slow Burn
I am not going to repeat the genre or number of pages or comment on whether the author knows a semi-colon from a colon in this review of Shah Wharton’s A Slow Burn. Suffice to say that I won’t review works with glaring omissions in basic layout and writing quality. Instead I want to share my excitement about the sheer quality of storytelling skills which make this novella a compelling work.
As is usual the reader knows nothing at the start of the story, other than perhaps the blurb or the echo of a friend’s enthusiastic recommendation. In A Slow Burn , the narrator, Bernie, appears to know even less and that means that the exploration of the environment she awakens in is something that is done together, we are just as unknowing and blind as the narrator and that creates an instant empathy, we understand her confusion all too well. Identifying with the protagonist then, is not because we recognize age or background - a few brief hints are given at the beginning but that is all - but because we recognize and identify with the human condition. This is subjective by the way, any young adult woman not unused to a wilder life in which it is not uncommon to wake up on a strange carpet with a splitting headache wearing just a cocktail dress might well identify much easier with that given information. I’m a bloke, however, and aint apologetic about it, mention a cocktail dress to me and I think legs and shapely curves first, politically incorrect but a biological imperative. Wharton’s approach of presenting a human condition has me on a par with Bernie instantly though. The empathy she creates has a very broad appeal; crossing gender and age barriers with easy agility. It wasn’t till I started writing the review that I started wondering about Bernie’s legs.
The opening of the story could be summarised as: The narrator woke up in a bedroom but Wharton stretches that simple fact into something far more elaborate. Mind you, there is no long description of the room that would leave nothing at all to the imagination of the reader. Instead Wharton weaves together various strands of story. One of these strands is the afore mentioned human recognition. Bernie fights the initial panic caused by disorientation by applying reason to try and override the input from her senses. I suspect most of us would feel that initial fear and deal with it the same way. I want to wash my hands after feeling something repulsive on the wall and then realise I didn’t, all I did was read about it but still, they feel kind of icky. As a writer I always hope that I can somehow let the reader get so deep into the story that they start to give primary responses. Wharton accomplishes this and it is a commendable feat.
Returning to those senses; these are used to slowly reveal the room to us. Cloaked in darkness at first it is the narrator’s touch which tells us about the physical composition of the room and her smell which tells us the situation is unusual. Here the reader is a step ahead of Bernie in realising the unusual might well be lethal though also fully understanding of the fact that the protagonist tries to apply the logic of regularity over the instinct that we might be facing something unknown. This exploration of the room and the slow revelation of its content is a fine example of showing rather than telling.
When sight is restored after light is let into the room the real darkness begins
The pattern of the narrative has an erratic quality, snatches of the action intermingled with a commentary delivered by means of the protagonist’s immediate thoughts. This works very well for me, it sets a discontinued rhythm that allowed me to feel that I was experiencing this story second by second, drawn in by the absolute realism of human behaviour. I often miss this in works where the hero’s actions are not accompanied by a great deal of human insight; they move logically from A to B to C like well-oiled machines. To my mind, thought and subsequent action – or vice versa – do not move in a straight line. They dodge to the left, jump to the right, make a quick lunge, feint backwards, coil and then spring again. By now, I don’t give a hoot about what the exact danger I have perceived is; if Wharton suddenly produces three elephant shaped pixies in polka dot dresses and butterfly wings fluttering in a distant corner I’ll believe every word of it and be in absolute terror of these monsters.
This perspective is Edgar Allan Poe territory, I am much minded of the manner in which the narrative is presented in the Tell Tale Heart and other such gems. Wharton has either learned from the very best there is in this genre or else shares Poe’s instinctive understanding of what fear and terror truly are: I suspect both. Like Poe she sometimes selects a few choice words and assembles these in phrases which leave me shuddering. A short extract:
So alive were my senses, if I had hackles they’d have flared; if I had claws, they’d have sprung from my fingers ready to swipe the face from any attacker. In truth, like a mouse fleeing a cat attack, I scampered nervously.
The author then subtly brings us back to that danger as more and more is revealed, though all of it remains a mystery. Descriptions of a forlorn strangeness in the world that can be seen from the window excite our curiosity and the author leaves us second-guessing here: Wtf is going on? The immediate consequences of whatever the wider picture is leaves the reader as horrified and nauseous as the narrator, for we are very much walking in her black Chelsea boots now. This culminates with a spine-chilling discovery in another bedroom which is far more up close and personal than the earlier gruesome sights.
The fear raised becomes exquisite as continued exploration of the house starts to reveal the extent of mayhem that has been caused as well as the realisation that in this case Death seems to have an eerie unnatural character. This isn’t the Grim Reaper we know and we start to miss him terribly as Bernie’s mind’s eye starts to form images. In this unknown ominous world our only friend is Bernie and just as we desperately hope that she starts to reveal its secrets we discover that her memory loss is far more extensive than the reader initially assumed. A sign with Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter would not have been amiss as Bernie finally exits the house of horror. The world she encounters is simultaneously familiar - filled with encounters of our own daily impressions of the world around us - and frighteningly alien.
Kudos, by the way, for the mention of the ‘rare independent bookshop’. They are an endangered species and need all the help they can get for their extinction would truly be a cultural loss.
Even as much more is revealed part of Bernie keeps on applying logic and reason in a denial of the facts which are plain to see all around her. As the story progresses - no more details from me, don’t want to spoil the story - Wharton lets the reader vividly experience the phases of grief and slow acceptance that the world which seemed so secure and endless has come to a sudden irreversible stop. In between there are odd bits of normal human social interaction which help ease the transfer between opening and hurtling towards the climax. That starts when Wharton ups the stakes and introduces a whole new terrifying possibility which had me on the edge of my seat and left me quite breathless. In all of this tension and suspense is maintained masterfully and it seems that the author toys with the reader at times; offering a balance between hope and despair much like that attacking cat Wharton referred to in the opening will play with that scampering mouse. Like that terrified little rodent I am left at the mercy of Wharton’s sharp claws as she drives towards the climax of the story which left me gobsmacked and somewhat pained.
I can highly recommend this work and look forwards to exploring more of Shah Warton’s writing.
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