Author: Rebecca James
Allen & Unwin RRP $24.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
‘I still dream about Anna London’s house. In my dreams it’s as if the house itself has sinister intentions. But in real life it wasn’t the house that was responsible for what happened. It was the people who did the damage …’
A slow-building gothic-style suspense, Sweet Damage is a worthy follow-up to Rebecca James’ first novel, Beautiful Malice, a novel at the heart of a big bidding war in 2010. I remember enjoying Beautiful Malice at the time (I reviewed it when I was working for a newspaper) it was released; since then, I’ve been looking forward to more from Rebecca James … the wait is now over.
Laid-back surfer Tim Ellison needs a place to stay now that he’s worn out his welcome at his ex-girlfriend’s place. When he finds a cheap room to rent in a Sydney mansion, it looks like luck is on his side; it’s only a 15-min walk to work, he has an ocean view and the house is huge, with only one other occupant, a withdrawn and anxious woman called Anna. Of course, there is a condition: he needs to help Anna as required, but nothing major, just a few groceries here and there. Tim moves in, chuffed at his stroke of luck, but it doesn’t take long before he starts to question his choice. Strange and terrifying things start happening – unexplained noises, a person watching him in his room, a kitchen destroyed in what looks like a fit of rage … and more. On top of this, Tim is increasingly concerned by Anna’s behaviour; he hears her crying at night, she spends hours in the attic but refuses to tell him why, and she keeps mentioning Benjamin.
Anna’s friends, siblings Fiona and Marcus, lived with Anna before Tim moved in; they are highly protective of Anna and give Tim little information. Whenever he tries to question them, he’s shut down fast. And then, just when he starts to think it’s all too much, Tim realises he has feelings for Anna. By the time her past catches up with her, Tim is in too deep. Someone is out to get Anna … but at the back of his mind, Tim can’t help wondering if she’s behind it all.
Sweet Damage is a fast read – I finished it in a few hours, to the amusement of Blue Eyes. Author James works hard to build the suspense, and for the most part, it works, with the reader unsure who to place their trust in, apart from Tim, who’s clearly caught in something weird. However, I did find that I had worked out all of the key ‘reveals’ early on, so I wasn’t really surprised by the ending at all – it happened just as I expected. However, other reviewers have said they were kept guessing … did I just know what to look for in this case? Or was the storyline not as subtle as it could have been? I’ll leave you to decide on that one. In any case, it meant that I wasn’t frightened or thrilled as such … more keen to see if I had worked it out.
The novel has been lightly compared to Daphne du Maurier’s classic, Rebecca, which happens to be one of my favourite novels. Certainly the opening evokes thoughts of Manderley, as do some of the characters and themes: a grand house full of secrets, tragic pasts, a narcissistic Rebecca-like character, protective friends, a fragile young woman wondering if she really is mad … yes, there are plenty of comparisons there. It could be a good English lit study … now I’m sounding like my mother. I can’t say that Sweet Damage is in the same league as Rebecca though – it’s a good book, but on a different level. I just didn’t feel that shiver of tension as I read … and I really wanted to.
Sweet Damage is pitched at the young adult market, which I think goes some way to explaining why the thrills and chills didn’t quite win me over. I think the book is written for a younger audience than me … and I’m not that old! Having said that, I know that if I’d read this 10-15 years ago, I would have loved it … and as a teen, I would have been biting my nails more than usual. So, did I enjoy it anyway? Well, yes, I did. James writes well and she is especially good at creating an atmosphere of menace in which the house almost becomes a character in its own right.
Bookish treat: A shiny red apple – beautiful on the outside, but you never know just how sweet it’s going to be until you take a bite. Oh, the suspense!