Review: ‘Small Spaces’ by Sarah Epstein

SmallSpaces

I know things aren’t right with me – conjuring up Sparrow today is evidence of that. The worst thing I could do is drag anyone else into my mess, least of all the Fishers. I know I should talk to my parents. I know I need to arrange a session with Dr Ingrid now instead of waiting until June.
I also know I won’t do any of those things.
Instead, I’ll try to figure out how to get a mute girl to talk.

When Natasha Carmody was eight years old she witnessed her gruesome imaginary friend Sparrow lure six-year-old Mallory Fisher away at a carnival. Neither Natasha’s family nor the police believed her, and when Mallory was found seven days later she was mute from the trauma. The Fisher family moved away, and with the help of her stern mother, as well as regular visits to a child psychiatrist, Tash accepted that Sparrow wasn’t real.

Now seventeen, Tash hopes to enter her final year of schooling without incident, so that her parents will see that she is capable of moving away from the seaside town of Port Bellamy, to the city to attend university. Standing in the way of her goal is Rachael, her beautiful and popular former-friend, who was privy to Tash’s childhood secrets. As the final year of school approaches, Tash thinks her greatest fear is for Rachael to use Tash’s secrets as leverage to humiliate and bully her at school. But, the Fisher family return to Port Bellamy, and so does Sparrow. Tash realises that Mallory is the key to unlocking the truth about the dark secret that connects them. Does the gruesome Sparrow exist? Is Tash going mad? Is Tash the gruesome one?

Small Spaces is a stunning, gut-wrenching thriller debut by Sarah Epstein. The first person narrative alternates between ‘now’ and ‘then’ chapters, with the ‘then’ chapters containing transcripts from psychiatrist sessions, as well as newspaper clippings. The novel is cleverly structured, as alternating between past and present not only adds to the suspense of drip-feeding the events surrounding the carnival, but is also atmospheric as it gives a sense of Tash’s increasing anxiety as she struggles to reconcile the past with the present.

A great cast of characters offer moments of tenderness and humour, courtesy of meticulously yet effortlessly crafted character traits and history. Tash is uncomfortable in her own skin, as she muses ‘my haircut is safe, my freckles are obvious and the only hip piece of clothing I own is a vintage E.T t-shirt I found in an op shop. And I don’t even wear it in public because I’m not cool enough to pull it off’. There is an element of tension underlying each of the relationships, ensuring suspicion is maintained throughout. Sadie is Tash’s fearless protector, but has a rebellious streak and confidence that far exceeds Tash’s. Even when they were friends, Tash was intimidated by Rachael, a pretty girl with trendy clothes and plane trips to her grandparents’ house in North Korea. While Tash’s nine year-old brother Tim only plays a minor role in the book, his impact is profound. He is largely oblivious to the family politics, and was too young to remember the events of the carnival. As such, he has been afforded the innocent and carefree childhood Tash never had, which makes Tash protective of him.

Small Spaces is a thrilling read with unrelenting suspense. I couldn’t put it down.

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With thanks to Walker Books for providing an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.

Small Spaces will be published on 01 April.

Review: Untidy Towns by Kate O’Donnell

UntidyTowns

 

I ran away on a Tuesday afternoon in late March. Six pm and I was headed south-west in a train that smelled stale. I had put two hours and however many kilometres behind me. Walking the length of the carriage and back again to stretch my legs, I lurched and pitched with and against the movements of the train. I’d done it now. Right decision. Wrong decision. My decision.

 

Set in the fictional country town of Emyvale, Untidy Towns is a contemporary novel narrated by Adelaide, a seventeen year old who is sick of living her life on other people’s terms. Adelaide drops out of the prestigious school she had been attending under a scholarship and heads back to her family in Emyvale to regroup, to breathe, and to try to figure out what she wants from her own life. Her mother sends Addie to work for her grandad at the Emyvale Historical Society. Addie starts hanging out with Jarrod, and realises he is just as stuck as she is. Addie realises she has to play an active role in her own life in order to find purpose and happiness.

Untidy Towns is a beautifully written novel about family, friendships and forging your own path to happiness. Unsure of where her future lies, Addie finds herself taking stock of her own life. Leaving her prestigious school and returning to the town in which she grew up provides Addie with the opportunity to look at her town, family and friends through fresh eyes. The novel is character-driven, and is therefore reliant on believable and intriguing characters to move the story forward. There is no one single antagonist standing in Adelaide’s way, just as there is no champion waiting to rescue her. Kate O’Donnell has created a collection of endearing and multifaceted characters who propel Addie to take charge of her own life, including her supportive mother who offers a balance of reassurance and authority without ever seeming too controlling, and Adelaide’s extroverted private school friend Mia, whose social confidence compliments Addie’s introverted tendencies but also arguably holds Addie back from becoming an active participant in her own life.

The pacing of Untidy Towns beautifully compliments the major theme of the book of slowing down and taking stock. The novel doesn’t seek to provide answers, but reads as more of an acknowledgement of the intense amount of stress that teens endure during their final year of schooling and the accompanying weight of expectation of a future they are expected to have perfectly mapped out. If this book was fast-paced and filled with plot twists, then it would be contradicting its own message of slowing down and finding happiness in the here and now. The pacing and the structure beautifully aligns with its message – something I only fully appreciated once I finished reading it.

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