Review: Mothtown - Caroline Hardaker
Genre: Magical Realism, Horror, Speculative
Published: Angry Robot Press, November 2023
My Rating: 5/5 stars
“No. This was a truth that I couldn’t swallow, and it rolled around my mouth, heavy on my tongue. I knew I should be sad, but I felt empty instead, as if something had been scooped out and not replaced. But in that hole, something lived and breathed, and it was flapping for attention.”
Caroline Hardakers sophomore novel had the honours of being my final anticipated release of 2023. Despite its purposefully enigmatic synopsis that only lifts the very tip of the veil of mystery that surrounds this story, I’ve been intrigued ever since its announcement. I can happily say, it lived up to the long wait. With its stunning prose that echoes the authors past work in poetry, its disorienting spin of events and its wonderfully resonant emotional core, Mothtown is one of the most haunting stories to come out this year.
David has always been an odd kid. A constant sense of displacement, and “otherness” has kept him from ever feeling completely at home in this world. His solid anchor, his home and kindred spirit, is his likeminded granddad, who’s eccentric interests and ideas fascinate young David. Especially Granddads work on multiverse-theory that even got him published once, has an electric pull on David.
Mothtown tells David’s story, as it is split into two time lines by an event that irrevocably divided his life into before and after; the death of grandfather. Without warning, without goodbye, Grandpa is gone and the world around him starts to take on strange and unsettling shapes. Unnerving events around town, missing people, bodies are showing up with wings, or bones in nests if you believe the rumours from the kids at school… And then, there’s the clues that Grandpa left behind; clues hinting that he didn’t die, but went away to another place. With increasing desperation, David sets off on a quest through a hostile landscape, piecing together the breadcrumb-trail Grandpa left behind, in hopes of finding that place where he doesn’t feel out of place.
Many of the events of the book remain shrouded in mystery and ambiguity, yet plenty is offered for the reader to understand what’s happening before them. Mothtown has strong themes of mental health, grief and trauma, and used magical realism to depict them in a way that almost feels “truer than life”. The way I interpreted the story, it’s one of the best and most intimate portrayals of a dissociative episode, or psychotic break, depicted from the inside, that I’ve ever seen on page. The way David's world splits following an event so horrible his mind cannot accept the reality of, is heartbreaking, harrowing and eerily resonant to read.
From a technical point, the authors writing is impeccable throughout. From the characterization, to the environmental descriptions, to the intense atmosphere; everything works synergistically to create this masterpiece. Although the book is tagged as “horror”, there are very few outward moments of fear throughout. Instead, the entire story is drenched in an unrelenting feeling of dread and displacement that, to me, was far more effective than any in-your-face-scares could be. Dread surrounding the unexplainable events happening, dread from a protagonist who’s desperately trying to make sense of a world that has fractures all around him, and the dread from you as the reader watching these events unfold, knowing the outcome likely won’t be a happy one.
All in all, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Comp-titles aren’t easy to find with something as unique as this, but Piranesi by Susanna Clarke comes to mind.
Many thanks to Angry Robot Press and Dreamscape Audio for providing me with both an audio- as well as a regular ARC in exchange for an honest review. Both formats add in unique ways to the story: the audio with its superb narration, and the physical/e-book by the stunning illustrations by Chris Riddell sprinkled throughout.
Mothtown is set for release on November 14th in stores, online and in audio-format. More information can be found here through Goodreads.