This review is part of the Hodderscape Review Project.
I’ve reviewed close to 500 books over the past few years. Most them I’ve enjoyed greatly, which suggests I’m either easily pleased or good at knowing what I’ll like. Since starting the blog, and having greater interaction with publishers and writers I sometimes worry that I’m getting a little soft. I rarely write bad reviews these days.
This is mostly because I have a greater understanding of the travails of bringing a book to print. Nobody sets out to write a terrible book and publishers don’t knowingly print thousands of copies of a turkey, so the last thing anybody needs is some opinionated toss-bag, telling everybody their book is rubbish.
I’m not sure how much Amazon reviews alter buyer opinion, but I’m a top 500 reviewer on there, and since ‘with minimal power comes great responsibility’, if I don’t like a book I’ve been given by a publisher, I don’t leave a review. It doesn’t feel it’s fair to. I still write a review on here, because, well it’s my space and I’m not sure anybody reads it anyway. (Having said that, one of my few bad reviews – for I am Pilgrim is my most read and searched for.)
Above by Isla Morley was given to me as part of the Hodderscape Review Project, and so I feel obliged to review it, even though I find it has very little to recommend. My other HRP reviews have been mostly highly favourable. So much so, that compared with other members of the team, I started to wonder whether I was a gushing Pollyanna, always seeing the best in everything.
The initial premise of Above, is not dissimilar to smash hit and prizewinner Room by Emma Donoghue. I initially balked at reading Room, as I feared it would be too distressing. Donoghue’s use of a five year old narrator is inspired. His singular and peculiar world-view offers a buffer against his and, more particularly, his mother’s horrendous situation. It’s a horrific subject dealt with incredible compassion and subtlety.
Above, by comparison, is like a sledgehammer to the face. It’s brutal and distressing with absolutely no finesse. A young girl is kidnapped off the street on the night of the country fair. She is incarcerated by a crazed survivalist, deep underground in a disused nuclear bunker. Convinced Armageddon is around the corner Dobbs hoped to keep Blythe alive so that after the apocalypse they can repopulate the planet. It’s not difficult to imagine the sort of thing that happens next.
The writing isn’t especially graphic, but I did find it a nasty, unforgiving read. A book can of course be both of these things, but it’s hard to pull off without alienating the reader. I found Blythe impossible to engage with. Similarly, Dobbs is little more than a cut-out lunatic. A villain by numbers. Blythe’s attempts at escape didn’t really interest me; there was never a sense she might make it, though perhaps that was the point – to highlight her helplessness. The psychological effects of being incarcerated for an extended period of time go largely unexplored and are underplayed.
The novel’s setting in a silo is perhaps unfortunate, as it has to compete for space in my imagination with Hugh Howey’s Wool trilogy, which has a silo of infinitely more interest. In Howey’s novel the claustrophobia is palpable but I found it missing here.
Then there’s the twist.
My copy of the book was a proof copy, and I stress that I haven’t seen a finished novel, so this may be not the same come publication. The unbelievable ‘you’ll-never-guess’ nature of the the twist is heavily emphasised. If there’s one thing to make you likely to guess a twist, it’s being told you’ll never guess the twist. Simply imagine the thing least likely to happen and it’s probably what’s gonna happen. And lo it came to pass. (I’ve since received a copy of the finished book, and again the shocking nature of the twist is quite heavily emphasised).
Which is a shame as the twist is pretty good, and the book does turn upwards at this point. Blythe’s rehabilitation ‘Above’ gives the reader plenty to think about. Yet I still remained unconvinced.
I can say very little about the second half of the book as to do so would spoil vital components of the story, but once again this sort of thing has been handled so much better elsewhere. Not least of all in Room, but in many other books too.
After an upturn in quality in the third quarter, Above falters again, limping to its flaccid conclusion. The plot is riven with coincidence and is often confusing (though this may have been the tedium of it all ruining my concentration.) Whilst some of the characters found above ground are believable many are little more than ciphers. The story is fragmented with whole sections which could easily have been cut. I’m sorry to say it but Above is the worst book I’ve read in many a month.