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by Anna Downes
Minotaur, April 2022
320 pages
ISBN: 1250264847

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In Anna Downes's second novel THE SHADOW HOUSE, heroine Alex, an English-born mother of two living permanently in Australia, rents a home in the New South Wales experimental "ecovillage" Pine Ridge. Alex, her fourteen-year-old son Ollie, and her eight-month-old daughter Kara get to try out Pine Ridge living for three months. After that, it's buy a "block" of land or move on. And Alex has done quite enough moving on for one lifetime. Ollie resents all the moves he remembers, especially the sudden, tumultuous ones. She hadn't want to do that again, but her boyfriend Stu, a paranoid restauranteur who keeps drawers full of cash because he doesn't want to be "owned" by anybody, kind of forced her hand. She had to take their daughter and Ollie and leave,

Having arrived in Pine Ridge suddenly, with a car packed "like Tetris" and afraid of Stu's reaction, Alex realizes she could have run away to a worse situation, as she has always done before. But she had to do something. Ollie was doing very badly in school, and Stu was getting more than paranoid: he was scary. Pine Ridge seemed like a solution... until strange objects start appearing at neighbours' houses, a pet cat turns up dead, and people pass on rumors about a "witch" in the forest.

What's going on at Pine Ridge? It's not supernatural. Like THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, THE SHADOW HOUSE trades in Gothic cliche while constantly assuring the reader via the social realistic storytelling that the solution to the mystery is going to be something absolutely ordinary. Downes builds considerable suspense on a scaffolding of the real: the rootlessness of expats, the dangers not of the woods but the internet, teenage malaise, and abusive relationships. We worry for Alex because her problems are those that we know are problems everywhere. Consequently. Downes explores the dangers in real life.

She doesn't raise any particularly obscure or surprising terrors, but THE SHADOW HOUSE is nevertheless an engrossing novel. The dialogue seems real. Ollie could be a lot of teenagers. So could the other teens of Pine Ridge: homeschooled Violet and self-harming recluse Gabe. If it's a psychological thriller cliche that suburbia hides all kinds of evils and lost souls, so does an "eco-village," which, in THE SHADOW HOUSE at least, is more an urbanite's idea of a perfect suburban community than it is anything recognizably rural, despite the well-kept and prolific greenhouses of Pine Ridge's communal flower concern.

THE SHADOW HOUSE is a page-turner. You'll want to find out what's behind its disturbing yet resolutely ordinary doors.

Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and co-edits Reviewing the Evidence.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, April 2022

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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