Thursday, November 25, 2010

"Awakening" by S.J. Bolton

Clara Benning is a wildlife vet who has settled in a small village that allows her to hide from the world. She has severe scarring on her face and doesn't like dealing with people too much. All this changes when houses in her village find themselves under siege from an influx of snakes. The area is home to harmless grass snakes, except now dangerous adders are showing up too. Then, in one home snake invasion, Clara finds a taipan, considered to be possibly the most dangerous, venomous snake in the world. To coincide with this, one by one, elderly citizens of the village are showing up dead, apparently the victims of deadly snake bites. Adding to the mystery, Clara is pretty sure she is being stalked by Walter Witcher, a man she was friends with - but who is supposed to be dead! Looking further into these events, Clara discovers links to a church fire in her village in 1958 which killed several people, various religious cults, and the messy history of the Witcher family.

"Awakening" gets off to a terrific start, with many creepy, suspenseful sequences as snakes, both harmless and deadly, invade various homes. There's also Clara's run-ins with a possible zombie, who seems to be able to get into her house at will. Unfortunately, it pretty much dies in the ass after that. What starts off as scary, suspenseful and original eventually becomes silly, contrived and tiresome. Bolton begins to take her sweet time setting up scenes and describing them in excruciating, minute detail. I don't know about other readers, but I have enough imagination to conjure up in my mind a spooky setting simply through being told the character is in a church graveyard as night falls. Here, we get pages upon pages of description - what the church looks like, what the trees look like, what the night looks like. It actually detracts from the atmosphere she's trying to achieve. This extends throughout the book. In later chapters, Clara walks through a seemingly empty house. We're told EVERY SINGLE INTRICATE DETAIL OF EVERY ROOM, even though it has nothing to do with what she's looking for or what she eventually finds. This doesn't create suspense. This creates frustration and boredom.

For a supposedly intelligent woman, Clara comes off as a too-dumb-to-live damsel-in-distress from gothic Victorian chillers. Why is she gallavanting through church graveyards at nighttime without a mobile phone? Why does she act like an adolescent girl any time a man so much as looks at her? We're supposed to believe Clara is highly emotionally damaged from a lifetime of carrying around horrible facial scars, but it seems very odd (and convenient) that two men should suddenly find her highly desirable despite her massive "fault". Clara's distrust of other people and her unwillingness to interact with them don't exactly make for a likeable main character. Plus, if she hates people so much, why is she even investigating this mystery? More than any other novel I've read, I never quite understood Clara's motivation for uncovering the truth. She had no real stake in the proceedings. If she just walked away, it would have no effect on her life.

The method in which it all ties together falls short of satisfaction. Too much of the story is a back-and-forth mystery over Ulfred, one of the Witcher brothers. He's dead and then he's not. He's dead and then he's not. Over and over again. It results in the novel achieving this sort of holding pattern until the author decides to jack proceedings up for the finale. Unfortunately, her insistence on down-to-the-last-detail description derails most of the suspense she's trying to achieve in these chapters. I should be gripped by every word, not skimming entire paragraphs trying to reach a page where something actually happens!

"Awakening" is a thriller twice as long as it needs to be. It has genuinely creepy moments to recommend it, but the mystery underlying the whole thing is quite feeble, which is only reinforced by the haphazard way the author links it all together in the finale. It's all too elaborate to be believable. I can't deny this is original and occasionally scary - all the more reason why ultimately it's so disappointing.

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