The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker, by Lauren James

The publisher graciously sent me a copy of this novel. Here is my honest review.

From the publisher : “When Harriet Stoker dies falling from a balcony in a long-abandoned building, she discovers a group of of ghosts, each with a special power. Felix, Kasper, Rima and Leah welcome Harriet into their world, eager to male friends with the new arrival after decades alone. Yet Harriet is more interested in unleashing her own power, even if it means destroying everyone around her. But when all of eternity is at stake, the afterlife can be a dangerous place to make an enemy.”

So the stage is set : we get to follow Harriet in her tumultuous afterlife, between the walls of the derelict Mulcture Hall, on her university campus. The novel alternates chapters focusing on each main character’s perspective, in the third person. There is also a narrator, who is part of the story and narrates in the first person, but we only gradually unveil his/her identity. I found these shifting perspectives very well executed. James seamlessly weaves them to push the stories forward. And it helps build the suspense : one has to wait to come back to a particular character’s chapter to learn what decisions they have made or if they have taken a planned action. Besides, the same scenes are lived through different eyes without ever seeming redundant.

“It had been instinct to reject them first, before they could reject her.”

We thus get to know the protagonists’ fears and questionings first hand, but somehow it is the dynamics between them that is emphasised. Thoughtful Felix, kind Rima, shy Kasper, and to a lesser extent Leah and Claudia were attaching. But it is this diverse group as an ensemble that I really cared about. Harriet, as the new girl and catalyst for the action, is a bit apart. We learn a lot about her upbringing, her insecurities and her aspirations. We are witness to her reckoning with some hard truths about her life. But even then, her personality is explored in the context of the reckless choices she makes and how they affect the power balance of Mulcture Hall. If there is a memorable character here, it is the whole ensemble.

“Being true to himself had to be more important than avoiding those worst-case scenarios.”

The writing is clear and simple, well adapted to this exciting, fast paced story. I do prefer my dark tales with more sophistication in the writing though (looking at you Frances Hardinge). Lush descriptions, polished sentences help set the atmosphere, and encourages the reader to savour and immerse themselves in the story. It is what makes a novel truly memorable.

Here the strongest point is certainly the plot. The initial idea is original, the action progresses rapidly, there are many pieces for the reader to put together as the story advances. It reads somewhat like a war game where you follow each faction, privy to their scheming. The author also intelligently plays with chronology to deliver an interesting twist towards the end. It had me scratch my head though, because that’s what messing around with time does to me. I need to know what is the cause and what is the consequence, so when time becomes circular, it leaves me with *lots* of questions.

“She wasn’t even sure who the real her was, it was so far buried beneath fabrications and stolen personality traits.”

Besides the gore and spooky, there is a strong psychological component as well, the novel touching on themes like grief, fear of being oneself, reluctance to let one’s emotion filter, and children’s abuse; with the gravitas and tenderness they behold. I notably liked the idea of fear being a vital part of oneself. A feeling we need to help us recognise what really matters and understand what is at stakes, as long as we do not let it drown us.

The story culminates with a final battle, but it does not just end up with a bang, it reaches a quiet resolution and the restoration of balance. There is relief, and the possibility of redemption.

“Was it even possible for him to fall in love, without those things? What was love, if not the small moments of humanity and vulnerability that came along with trusting someone to catch you, when you fell for them?”

In conclusion : an exciting, hard-to-put-down novel that delivers important life lessons. Despite its gory aspects and sensitive themes, it is very much YA. Younger me would have devoured this one. Older me did as well to be honest, but I think it would have left a stronger impression on me a few years ago. I now expect more subtlety in the message and more delicacy in the execution. Still, I had a really good time and would recommend it if you are looking for a fun, spooky autumn read that does not forget to be grave… and tender.

The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker, 432pp
03/09/2020 from Walker Books UK

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