Saturday, November 3, 2012

"The Price" by Alexandra Sokoloff

Will Sullivan is a district attorney in the race to become the next governor of Massachusetts. His political ambitions and his perfect life with wife Joanna and five-year-old daughter Sydney come to a crashing halt when Sydney is diagnosed with a cancerous tumour.

She is treated at Briarwood Medical Centre, where Will soon starts seeing a mysterious man in the endless hospital corridors. He appears to be some sort of counselor, helping those who are dealing with having seriously ill loved ones.

Except some people who are surely at death's door miraculously become better - an AIDS sufferer, a cop with a nasty bullet wound to the chest. And the hospital insists that this counselor - whom Will knows as Salk - does not exist. When Sydney, also at death's door, suddenly has a new clean bill of health, Will suspects something not quite right is going on.

As Joanna's behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre, he fears she must have struck some sort of bargain with Salk to get Sydney better. Is this the case? Or has the stress of his campaign and Sydney's illness sent him a little crazy?

I think "The Price" is what you call a metaphorical horror tale. The question of how far you would go to save a loved one is timeless, but this novel takes a long time to put forward it's relatively simple hypothesis. Instead, imagine 100-odd pages of a guy walking down hospital corridors and seeing something strange and then wondering whether he saw it at all. It got very dull very quickly.

The book also never explains what is really going on at Briarwood Medical Centre. Maybe the author thinks it's spookier if the truth is left up in the air, but most of the book is based on Will seeking answers. Spending an entire novel following a guy trying to find out the truth, only to find out absolutely nothing, is very frustrating. I think it would have been more interesting to explore what prices various characters are willing to pay to save another person. It's a fascinating concept, but this book leaves it mostly unexplored, despite it seemingly to be the point of its bloody existence.

I also felt a disconnect with the character of Joanna, who is the one who seems to have made a bargain with Salk. Since the book is told only through Will's eyes, I never got to understand what was driving Joanna. I only knew that Will loved her and wanted to save her.

I admit I am not a fan of ambiguous horror stories. So I'm likely not the intended audience for this novel. Nevertheless, I was never scared. There was no suspense. I didn't feel any emotional connection to the characters or the situation - Will seems far more concerned with his wife's health than his daughter's. An exploration of the bond between Joanna and Sydney would have made much more sense and given me a stake in the proceedings.

If you like your horror full of symbolism, descriptive prose and half-explored supernatural themes, there might be something for you here. I cottoned on to the central concept early, only to have to wait until the end of the book for it to be confirmed, with far too many unanswered questions along the way. It really wasn't one of the more thrilling books I've read.

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