"One by One" Book Review
Written by Tony Jones
Published by Flame Tree Press
Written by D.W. Gillespie
2019, 240 pages, Fiction
Released on 25th September 2019
Blending psychological thriller and horror, D.W. Gillespie’s One by One opens with the Easton family discussing the purchase of a ramshackled old house which the father Frank describes as their “new fixer-upper” after buying it for a knock-down price. There is an underlying strain in the marriage between Frank and Debra, both financial and personal, after he lost a steady job and now works in sales, which is commission based. He is not a very good salesman. The other members of the Easton clan are ten-year-old Alice and fifteen-year-old Dean; the story is mainly seen from Alice’s perspective and Dean is a stereotypical moody teenager who spends most of the time either in his bedroom or clashing with his father.
Alice would have made an outstanding unreliable narrator, but because the story is told in the third person, that unique perspective is lost and I wonder whether that style may have suited for this novel. It also takes some time to figure out exactly how old Alice is (unless I missed it early on), as she comes across as very mature, observant and incredibly wise to be only ten. Until her age is revealed, I would have guessed she was around thirteen. Alice has a very active imagination and there are implied comments from other family members about her being a daydreamer who struggles with friendships. These are all tell-tale signs of a classic unreliable narrator. As soon as the family arrives at their new home, Alice has an uncomfortable feeling. “There are monsters here,” she thinks, but at the same time it is she who is most in tune with the house.
Much of the plot revolves around the dynamics of the family; there are virtually no other characters in the story, and this is well judged and realistic as cracks begin to show. Alice obviously does not understand the finer detail of what is going on in her parent’s marriage and she laments the disappearance of the closeness she once had with her brother, whom she once turned to for support. However, her musings, overactive imagination, misunderstandings, problems and loneliness are a major highlight of the story. She may be mature beyond her years, but Alice is a striking lead character whom the reader will develop affection for as the plot both thickens and darkens.
One of the strengths of One by One is the fact that for most of the time the reader is unsure whether there is anything supernatural going on or not. Horror or thriller? Ultimately, it is a solid blend of both. This is handled very well and heading into the big finish it could have swung either way; it is always nice to be kept guessing and that helps turn the book into an enjoyable page-turner. There are also flashbacks to previous residents of the house (including the prologue), which drop the odd clue.
Friction develops early on when Alice is intrigued by what she discovers beneath peeling wallpaper; an intricate drawing of a family which looks just like her own, the only difference is that her family has a cat. Soon foreboding ‘X’ marks begin to appear on the drawing and both she and Dean are the prime suspects. Their parents are not amused and after the cat disappears, a clever drama unfolds.
The house itself is an outstanding setting and its size is undoubtedly exaggerated by the child who describes it. Alice’s room is some distance from her parents and she struggles to sleep, as her father takes a while adding curtains and because of this, her sense of isolation increases. The building also has a weird design where windows back onto other internal rooms. Alice’s discovery of a diary adds to the tension and this allows the author to integrate other voices to the narrative and drop clues which are teased out nice and slowly.
Ultimately, your opinion of One by One may well be shaped by how satisfying you find the ending and the big reveal which leads up to it. It failed to knock me out, but I still found it satisfying and the epilogue particularly moving. Others may find it does not live up to its early promise, but some of that may depend on whether you are expecting a thriller or a horror novel. This is a very solid story with a very catchy opening which will have you eating up pages quickly and is an entertaining few hours of escapism.
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