Monday, November 12, 2018

Book Review: The Stranger in Our Home

By Jami Deise

The evil stepparent has been a trope of fiction throughout the history of literature, and from a biological basis, there’s good reason. With an evolutionary compulsion to promulgate one’s genes far and wide, it only makes sense to funnel resources to a biological child over a new partner’s. If that means leaving them in the woods to be eaten by a witch, so be it.

In Sophie Draper’s debut The Stranger in Our Home (published in the UK as Cuckoo), she brings this trope back to the beginning in what can best be called an adult fairy tale in the Brothers Grimm tradition. After the death of her stepmother Elizabeth, Caroline (Caro) moves back into the remote English farmhouse where she and her older sister grew up after the death of their father. Homeless after a painful break-up, Caro, an artist, plans to use the move to illustrate a gruesome book of adult fairy tales. But the memories of her punishing treatment by Elizabeth, odd coincidences, the isolated setting of the farmhouse in late fall, and the cruelty of the villagers (who refer to Caro’s sister as the flashy one and Caro as the crazy one), drive Caro to distraction. Why did Elizabeth hate her so much? Why do the villagers treat her as a pariah? And who is this boy popping into her mind whom she can’t remember?

Seeped in its gothic setting, Stranger is not a supernatural story, but its tone delivers that experience anyway. Although Caro is a passive protagonist and a bit too fragile, her personality works for the novel. The pacing does lag a bit at times, as the action unfolds over several months, but it never comes to a complete stop. With only a few characters, the reader feels just as isolated as Caro does, and that also works to the story’s advantage.

Stranger is a strong debut, especially in a marketplace where stories like The Haunting of Hill House get so much attention. My only real quibble is with the publisher’s decision to rename the novel for American audiences. Cuckoo has a sly double meaning that is only apparent at the end of the book, and it gave me even more appreciation for the author. Perhaps they thought that Americans don’t know as much about birds as we should.

Thanks to HarperCollins UK for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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