20 March 2015

Black Wood - SJI Holliday

Black WoodAnd so, stumbling out of the trees wearing a lumpy balaclava, arrives the Black Wood Blog Tour on its final stop this week. Susi –- sorry, SJI –- Holliday’s debut novel reminds us why any reasonable person would get the fuck out of a small town as soon as possible.

The blurb is not going in there alone:

Something happened to Claire and Jo in Black Wood: something that left Claire paralysed and Jo with deep mental scars. But with Claire suffering memory loss and no evidence to be found, nobody believes Jo’s story. Twenty-three years later, a familiar face walks into the bookshop where Jo works, dredging up painful memories and rekindling her desire for vengeance. And at the same time, Sergeant Davie Gray is investigating a balaclava-clad man who is attacking women on a disused railway, shocking the sleepy village of Banktoun.

But what is the connection between Jo’s visitor and the masked man? To catch the assailant, and to give Jo her long-awaited justice, Gray must unravel a tangled web of past secrets, broken friendship and tainted love. But can he crack the case before Jo finds herself with blood on her hands?

Village life, with its complex web of relationships and lifelong resentments, has powered the imaginations of crime writers down the years and Black Wood is a worthy addition to this Rural Gothic genre. It’s a pacey read which picks up speed, hurtling towards an inevitably violent conclusion.

The town of Banktoun is the star of the show. Holliday writes about her fictional Scottish backwater with gusto and imbues the sleepy high street with a gleeful menace. It’s a claustrophobic and crowded place. Everyone knows your business, sometimes before you even know it yourself. Chances are, you’ve probably slept with half of these people. Everyone has dark secrets and someone—it could be someone you know all too well—is pulling on a balaclava and menacing women.

Banktoun’s collection of damaged and twisted individuals makes Twin Peaks look like Ambridge, and makes you crave for the blessed anonymity of the metropolis. Thank the lord, then, for sturdy copper Sergeant Davie ‘The Modfather’ Gray, who provides a much-needed moral compass in this oppressive village, with its complex web of relationships and lifelong resentments and two fish ‘n’ chip shops.

The two timelines that power the narrative—the incident in Black Wood and the modern-day stalking—ultimately don’t really gel to my mind, and the story can get cluttered with characters and subplots, but there’s a lot to like here. Holliday is terrific at the psychological stuff—how you can wake up one morning to discover that everyday life has flipped into something sinister and wrong.

Jo’s memories surge to the surface and become entangled with unresolved feelings and relationships, and festering secrets. Jo is a terrifically damaged heroine, just on the right side of likeable, and her pursuit of the man she believes attacks her and Claire as a child feels true and urgent.

The writing is often very good in Black Wood—Holliday has an eye for telling small details about people and situations, the character portraits are really heartfelt—and make sure you stay till the bitter end because there’s a nasty final chapter twist that really hits the sweet spot.

Many thanks to Black And White Publishing for the review copy. I’m delighted to say that Susi Holliday will be giving us the intel on her writing, and small town life—look out for that coming up soon!