Help! I’m Wilder Harlow and I’m trapped in this review. Before that, my prison was more substantial and somewhat of a labyrinth, although perhaps telling you that Looking Glass Sound was like a prison is a white lie. My time in Catriona Ward‘s book depicts all the facets of my life – joy and love, loneliness and despair, fear and anger. Satisfaction and pain, too. Plenty of that. It’s a book that examines how characters are trapped by the stories they’re in, confined to lives delineated by writers, or whomever is in control of the narrative.
I’m bitter about that. I’m not sure I got a fair deal but what I will say is that my life in this story starts well. I’m yanked out of a torrid, bullied childhood in New York and transplanted to the Maine coastline where my parents have inherited my uncle Vernon’s cottage. It begins with a summer visit in 1988, and finally a bug-eyed 16-year-old like me, with my pale eyes and unusual head, can start living.
Maybe even fall in love. Actually, that’s the first thing I do when I see Harper, the English redhead on holiday here who is my age, much smarter and claims to know magic. It happens again when I meet Nat, who’s a year older than me with golden hair and bronze skin. There’s an instant connection with both of them.
Whistler Bay is so called because the rocks on the shore have eroded to form cylinders and when the wind blows a certain way a haunting music reverberates across the water – like the pipes of Pan. Maybe, the sound can also be attributed to a god, spirit or mythical being on the bay. The ghostly whistling is background music for the dark things happening around the cove and in the nearby town of Castine. Somebody the locals call The Dagger Man is silently breaking into houses and taking Polaroids of sleeping children. He holds a knife to their necks. Thank God nobody has been hurt. Yet.
That’s not all. Whistler Bay has an undertow and every year or so a swimmer is taken by the current out to sea and down into the murky depths. According to Harper, a supernatural force is at work – a monster whose lair might be in a tidal cave across the beautiful cove. My first summer there is glorious, I finally become myself after a repressed childhood, I start to see my parents for who they really are but, best of all, I spend just about every waking hour with Nat and Harper, basking in their radiance and feeling their love. I’d never had friends like these before, never will again – it’s like we’re three parts of the same being. All of this builds up to a visit to that cave where Harper thinks she can summon the monster, which scares the frick out of me.
The following summer is the same at first. But different. We’re all a year older and our relationships are taking on new dimensions. Something’s happening between Nat and Harper that I am left out of. I’m still happy and whole – well, I think I am – but the tension is building. Then everything is shattered. It turns out that a serial killer is amongst us at Whistler Bay and they’re closer to me than I could ever have imagined. Nat, Harper and I are flung apart. None of us will ever be the same.
My story takes me to college in Pennsylvania, where I begin to understand what it really means to be a character in a novel. I am utterly traumatised by what took place that summer and to exorcise these demons I’m studying to become a writer. My roommate is Sky, a fascinating guy whose real name is Pierce, who wants to be a writer too. He helps me. He stabilises me. He encourages me to put the words down on paper. He’s fascinated with my story, the murders, the victims, the details. I fall in love again and, although it’s not the same as with Harper and Nat, I love Sky as both a man and a woman.
Now that probably sounds weird, and it is, because when Sky and I part ways I realise that deep in my soul I believe that everything that happened, the whole experience, every ounce of feeling it generated, belongs to me.
But does it? After all, I was just one of the players. I only have my perspective on things although, as I come to see, my perception and understanding of the events were limited at the time. What about Harper? What about Nat? What about my parents? The cops? And the killer? Even the victims?
What dawns on me in the second half of Looking Glass Sound is that I’m a character in other people’s stories too, and not even the main one. I’m someone they loved. Someone who annoyed them. Someone they can manipulate through their own words. They can haunt me with ghastly, rotting spirits of women from the deep. I’m dowsed in Harper’s bloody magic. One of these storytellers even takes my eyesight. My huge eyes, that freak people out, turn into my undoing. How ironic. And just how am I supposed to write if I can’t see the letters on my typewriter? Huh? Answer me that!
I’m angry and I’ll never forgive. Although maybe that’s not up to me, either.
What I will say is that I’m probably the best writer in this book, apart from Catriona herself. You’ll love being with me in the first half of this story more than anything – immersed in the beautiful waters of the cove, wading across golden meadows, collecting smooth driftwood for beach fires, gulping Harper’s illicit whiskey. Did I mention that she’s an alcoholic? In this gorgeous setting, where everything depends on just how Nat and Harper look at me and what they say, while we’re all a little broken inside, everything seems perfect.
Then, I’d say, like the waters on the bay, because this is literary fiction, after all, things get choppy as different stories come out across the next three decades. I’m biased, for sure, because I’m the victim of the other writers who take over, but I’m just not sure they keep things quite as cohesive and engaging as I do. Things get… confusing. If what you want is a procedural to puzzle over, or a thriller for the train, then God help you, that’s not my deal and it’s not Catriona’s deal either.
However, I refuse to leave you on a sour note. I just won’t. As nervous, skittish and under-a-cloud as I was in my youth, there’s love in me and I do love Looking Glass Sound which has given me life, no matter who really owns the stories inside. I’ve read well and I’ve read widely and very few books are this beguiling, imaginative or ambitious. You won’t be able to leave the atmosphere it conjures, or escape the creepy thoughts and memories, which will worm their way into your consciousness and give you a jolt of horror whenever you see an oyster knife, an oil drum or a Coke bottle top, for example.
It’s time for me to go. The editor of this site is about to cut me off. To spend more time with me and explore my world (well, I say it’s mine…) get a copy of Looking Glass Sound and settle into your favourite reading chair. I love the cover, by the way – it’s a book that certainly turned me upside down.
For readers who enjoyed The Secret History by Donna Tartt, The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill or Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars