Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Vines by Christopher Rice

Caitlin, a rich heiress and owner of a truly extravagant renovated mansion seems to have it all. Sadly, she also has a cheating husband.

Caitlin’s rage at his betrayal invokes an old power lying beneath the house – a lethal power that seizes on her revenge for its own deadly purpose

It’s down to Nova, the daughter of Caitlin’s groundskeeper and Blake, her estranged best friends, to get to the bottom of the mystery and find out what it is she has invoked.

The atmosphere of the book is excellent. This is a horror novel and it brings the creepy – and a whole lot of mystery. There is a lot of tension in the book from almost the beginning and there is no scrimping on the horror. A lot of this comes from the unknown – because the Vines quickly become more and more complicated than simple angry, vengeance seeking plants which continues to add to the tension and the unknown. Every time I thought I knew how this worked, every time I thought that I would know who was at risk or not the rules changed, we had some more revealed and the threat became more universal again. The ground kept shifting, the mystery kept growing, the creepiness was always maintained

The language also hit the right balance. It was elaborate and gothic and descriptive – juuuuust edging towards being overly descriptive and overly flowery – but then pulling back from the edge. It held on the cusp of being just a bit too much for most of the book, instead adding really nicely to the atmosphere of it.

However, elaborate language, hefty description coupled with a shifting deep mystery meant there were times when I was lost and trying to figure out where we were going, what was happening and why because everything just kind of stumbled into confusion for a bit in the middle and towards the end.

It also has a revenge plot and raises the issue of both what will you sacrifice for revenge and what revenge makes you, as a person. It’s interesting and knotty

I was really pleasantly surprised by how this book presented the setting – and I don’t mean the magic. This book is set in a very wealthy, restored plantation house outside of Louisiana, with some delving into the past. A lot of books set in this time and place have a… overly romanticised view of the setting. I’ve seen far too many happy-Black-slaves and devoted Black servants just falling over themselves to serve the rich White family they adore so.

This was not that book. The rich, restored plantation was not allowed to escape its history even while it was clear the white owner and tourists very much preferred it that way (and how the whole building’s tourism was based around romanticising that history). It was an excellent depiction that wonderfully skewered the romanticism we see far too often.

In fact, the general depiction of both the marginalised characters in this book – who served as co-protagonists – was excellent. Blake is gay man and Nova is a Black woman. Both of them excellently experience and present the problems discrimination causes – not just the big overt issues like discrimination, fear of the police and hate crimes, but there’s an excellent depiction of micro-aggressions – the annoying assumptions people make, the words they choose to use, the stereotypes they constantly try to pin to marginalised people, feelings of “collective responsibility” and the idea that they need to present better than that. There’s also excellent ways they both interact with Caitlin – she assumes Blake should be grateful for their friendship, despite her crossing the line of what is acceptable and him often having to support her. And how she still looks at Willie (Nova‘s father) as “family” even though Nova is clear that he’s an underpaid employee (there was an excellent line about them working all Caitlin’s parties, but never being invited to them. It just wonderfully attacked the whole privileged idea of these servants being such joyous family members rather than often exploited employees.

Honestly, I can’t even list the many ways this book got depiction of oppression and these character’s issues right because there’s so many of them and there are so many ways that the characters have to include the prejudice of others in their interactions and thoughts; it works and it works well

Both Blake and Nova are intelligent, insightful, angry when warranted but not unnecessarily for. They care for the people in their lives, they have a reasonable scepticism when called for but don’t hold on to it past when it’s clear that there’s some serious woo-woo going on. They both have very separate personalities, they both have a history and goals and passions and they both step up to the events in the book.

Caitlin is a less great character – we see most of her through the eyes of Blake and Nova and it isn’t flattering. She is rich, she is spoiled, she does take people for granted – but she’s not a demon, she genuinely tries (showing how genuinely trying is not a miracle worker). She also has her own terrible conflicts – the daughter of an extremely rich man she was expected to do two things – be pretty and find a husband. Nothing else about her was ever encourage and, the problem is, the whole “be pretty” part of the deal wasn’t in her genes. Caitlin has appalling self-esteem, she has lived her whole life being valued for one thing and then being told that she doesn’t hit the mark. She’s insecure, she’s angry and she’s just ready to unleash when she catches her husband cheating – and she does. All that rage and pain bubbles up gloriously. Unfortunately, it also bubbles up a huge amount of slut shaming and misogynist language for the woman her husband was sleeping with – but the primary target of her wrath is her husband.

In all this was a book that was a lot better than I expected. It was creepy, mysterious, entirely original and full of some excellent deconstruction of tropes we’ve seen repeated over and over and over again.