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Friday, 22 December 2017

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

After reading a lot of hype about The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (2018), I was delighted to get hold of an ARC. Admittedly, I follow a lot of agents, publicists, publishers, and authors on Twitter, so it’s not that surprising that I read a lot of hype. But the central concept seemed so interesting that I couldn’t wait to read the book in all its 505-page glory.

At the heart of this truly unique novel is the narrator, who wakes up one morning, unable to remember who he is, where he is, or why he’s there. All he can remember is a name: Anna. That’s the opening, but it’s not the hook. The hook is altogether weirder. I quote the blurb:
Evelyn Hardcastle will die. Every day until Aiden Bishop can identify her killer and break the cycle. 
 But every time the day begins again, Aiden wakes up in the body of a different guest. 
 And some of his hosts are more helpful than others…
Irresistible, right? The novel, originally titled The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, is being marketed as ‘Gosford Park meets Inception by way of Agatha Christie’ and I think that the skew to the visual is significant: it’s already been optioned for television and feels like something that should and will be filmed. It’s a debut novel from Stuart Turton, who is a travel journalist – and I have no idea if or how he’s going to follow up something such a stand-out.

This novel’s chief virtue is its high concept, executed through immaculate and mind-bogglingly complicated plotting. Aiden lives through the same day seven times, each time in the body of another character, and sometimes he dips in and out of ‘hosts’; but every time he tries to change what has happened, he finds himself making it happen. It’s that time-travelly paradoxy stuff you get on TV all the time. And how the author managed to plot this all so expertly, with a rather complex murder mystery on top of it, is truly beyond me. It must have taken ages.

The story is set non-specifically. Technically, the action could be taking place any time between the nineteenth and the twenty-first centuries, although it feels kind of 1930s-ish, and the end casts everything in a new light. Aiden is a relatively blank character – he’s the kind of scrupulous conscientious man that is essential in fiction and wouldn’t be allowed in real life – and every time he wakes up in a new host, he takes on elements of their personality: at first this is simply a case of knowing how to play chess, but it develops into helpful traits like a policeman’s peripheral vision, or obstructive ones like a rapist’s violent aggression. As he fights the influence of his hosts, he learns more about himself – and why he’s in this loop.

As for the mystery: the Hardcastle family is hosting a lavish masquerade ball to mark the return of their estranged daughter, Evelyn, after twenty years. There’s a sinister assortment of guests, whose greed and avarice glitter like the freshly-dusted chandeliers (Turton very nearly veers into that sort of description, but mostly reins it in). Everyone is hiding something, much of it connected to who sired whom and a long-unmentioned family tragedy.

In the evening, after a ground-shaking announcement, Evelyn appears to commit suicide. But we know that, contrary to all appearances, it is murder. Sifting through suspects – at the same time trying to work out which ones are actually him in future incarnations – Aiden soon discovers that he isn’t the only one trying to solve the mystery: he has competition from fellow intruders-in-disguise. In the meantime, getting to the bottom of his own identity and purpose, Aiden has to find this mysterious ‘Anna’, and work out if she is friend or foe. Although we learn a lot about our hero in the course of the investigation, we never actually get to ‘see’ the real him: which I think is a marvellous touch, adding to a haunting ambiguity after the resolution has been delivered.

The solution to the mystery is in three parts and, contrary to appearances, it isn’t overly complex. It takes over 100 pages to unfold, but at the core are three very simple steps (all of which seemed familiar from television, but not in combination). The author also plays fair: you know how, reading a mystery novel, you have several half-thoughts about the solution, which you quickly abandon as new information comes to light? Take all those thoughts and put them together, and you’ve probably solved the whole thing. So, although I saw just all but one twist coming at some point, as a collective whole it bamboozled me.

Depending on execution, an idea like the one at the heart of Seven Deaths could prove to be a bestseller, or it could win the Booker. Turton has gone for the former, and the result is extremely readable. I read it in three 150-170-page sittings. The prose is not seamless, the switch from past to present tense seems to have happened late in the order of things, and the author has invented a truly unique approach to the comma – but, as I mentioned at the outset, Turton’s plotting skills are unparalleled. As a piece of craftsmanship, Seven Deaths is majestic.

It’s such a weird and wonderful novel that it will appeal to nearly everyone.

2 comments:

  1. Good grief, Jamie, this one sounds marvelous! I have actually toyed with a “high concept” idea with some vague similarities, so I’m a little crestfallen to read about this. Still, I can’t wait to give it a try!

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    1. If this book is a success, as I'm sure it will be, then the market will be open for a flood of novels with vague similarities!

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