gail schimmel

The blog of writer Gail Schimmel: A bit of writing, a bit of parenting, a bit of thinking and some book reviews

The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian

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I haven’t given you any book reviews for a while, which doesn’t mean that I haven’t been reading. I have been reading – I am always reading – and I’ve read some really amazing books and one of these days I’ll blog you a list of some “must reads”. But today I want to talk about one of my favourite authors, Chris Bohjalian.

My first Chris Bohjalian was Double Bind, and I think because it was my first it remains in my mind as a favourite. (In fact, I am using a device he used in Double Bind, but in a different way, in my current writing). After Double Bind, I ran out and got hold of every Chris Bohjalian that I could lay my hands on and they are all fabulous. I think what fascinates me about his writing is that he writes in different genres to some extent, and while some novels are fairly light, others are life-changing in their message (The Sandcastle Girls, which is about the Armenian genocide, is one of these, and really one of the best books I read in 2013). But they are steady in their quality – the only other writer that I can think of who changes genre with this skill is Douglas Kennedy . . . and maybe JK Rowling will be added to that list.

So recently I came across a Chris Bohjalian that I had somehow missed called The Night Strangers. Innocent that I am, I started reading it, thinking this would be a lovely, normal read. Instead, I was gripped into a magical, horror/thriller world of good versus evil and basically was rendered dysfunctional while I read it. I’d start making supper, and then pause to read a bit more; I’d be bathing the children and wander off to read a bit more . . . you get the picture. The story is about a traumatised family who move to a strange old home in New Hampshire to escape their past. But when the father finds a sealed door in the basement, and the local “herbalists” develop an unhealthy interest in the twin daughters, the spine chills begin.

What fascinates me about Bohjalian’s work is the way he challenges himself as a writer. Not only does he change genre, he breaks rules. So in this work, for example, there are sections written in the second person (ie “You”) which is very unusual and difficult but he does it so well that you barely notice that it’s happening.

He breaks another rule of the good versus evil genre in this book too, but to tell you would be a spoiler and really, you need to read this one. And let me warn you. . . you get to a point of the book where you are gripped, but you think you know how it will end. You don’t know how it will end. Believe me, my friends, you have no idea.

And if you’ve never read any Bohjalian at all, then please, find one – any one – and read. My favourites are Double Bind, The Sandcastle Girls (although it is quite fundamentally disturbing) and possibly this one . . . although that might be because it is freshest in my mind.

A final note is to tell you that Chris Bohjalian is also one of the nicest people that I follow on twitter – he is unfailingly polite, and answers mentions, and thanks one for compliments. It is hard to reconcile this charming man with some of the very dark places that his books can take you! But if you’re on twitter, and you’re a reader type person, follow him to reignite your belief in the kindness of authors.


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