Published: Thomas Mercer. 1st December 2020
This is a deeply unsettling novel, set in a near future dystopia which reminded me somewhat of Westworld. It’s an opportunity that seven strangers can’t pass up when Timeo Technologies invites them to test out the very latest in leisure experiences. Our group of characters are promised a luxury getaway of their dreams, an adventure they’ll never forget. The last part is definitely true.
Amelia wonders why she’s been invited, especially when she meets the other guests who have more obvious benefits to Timeo – a social media influencer, a photographer, a games developer and a financier. They have nothing in common with Amelie who works for an NGO and prioritises helping others. Where do her skills fit in? However, as the trip develops it becomes clear that this seven have something else in common – each has a huge secret they wouldn’t want the world to know about. Every guest is fitted with a tracker that is symbiotic; it fastens into the skin behind the ear to tap into the body’s nervous system. Once activated it’s impossible to remove without causing damage, a sensation that made me feel really uneasy – I would be worried that it would give them control over me. Of course there is a downside. Instead of enhancing their island experience, or simply tracking where they are, this technology appears to harvest memories and then manifest the worst of them like a flickering projector film. Each person must relive a time when they behaved at their worst, knowing that every other guest can see it too. One character relives a time she attacked a girl with a glass in a nightclub. The guilt and shame is terrible and each person responds differently. As injuries and paranoia start to set in, Amelia begins to think that the only way to leave the game is to be the one left standing when the countdown ends. As each person makes their way to the big house, where a party is promised, true characters emerge and the group are split. Who will get there first and what will they have to do in order to get there?
I really enjoyed the opening chapters of the novel where we get to know the seven characters and they get to know each other. This was fascinating to read for a therapist like me, because we are only being introduced to everyone’s surface characteristics. The rest will slowly emerge. The author cleverly sets the scene with a sense of foreboding and although I wasn’t really invested in any particular character, I did start to worry about what was to come. I enjoyed the set-up of the technology, it felt believable within the context of real innovations mentioned in the narrative. This felt like the future, but not too distant. I did think the entire island was virtual for most of the narrative, because the setting felt strange. The island itself felt warmer and more tropical than an island off the south coast of the U.K. A couple of participants seem to have memories of the island and there were also moments that felt artificial, such as where Amelie noticed pixelation at the house. I wondered how far the device they were wearing created the environment and whether Amelie noticed differences because she was on an alternative type of tracker. It was more like a ‘Fitbit’ than the headset worn by the others and wasn’t quite as advanced.
To get the best reading experience I would definitely recommend reading in longer stretches. I had a lot going on when I started this and had to read in short bursts, so I did struggle to remember the characters and become fully immersed in the story. It was great to be able to read in long sections from then on and really lose myself in the story. I also think that in order to truly enjoy a story we need to engage with one of the characters, but I found that difficult to do in this novel. I really didn’t like anyone, even before their past was revealed. If anybody, I think Amelie was the one we were supposed to identify with, but for some reason this didn’t happen for me. This wasn’t just because these characters have done some terrible things, but because they felt as unreal to me as the island itself. These are not people I meet in everyday life, but then I live in a very rural part of the country and so my experience is possibly limited. Social media influencers and financiers are few and far between in Lincolnshire where you’re more likely to meet a farmer, gamekeeper or home carer. I really came away from it thinking this was a world far outside my social and economic experience.
This may say a lot about my character, but the most fascinating parts of the novel come when the characters are at odds with each other or under pressure. There’s a scene between Brenda, the banker, that’s almost Biblical! She is lured away to a quiet spot with a delicious looking picnic, but a nightmarish snake is lurking and starts to slowly wind itself around her leg. For someone with a snake phobia, this was a really vivid scene and hinted that perhaps the technology could root out each participants greatest fears. The following descriptions of Brenda’s leg, as the others try and get her to the big house before the poison takes hold, are horrific. In her pride she hasn’t wanted to tell them she was bitten, but her leg swells and changes colour dramatically and the tension created by the time scale on the injury really added urgency to the narrative.
I think the author had a brilliant premise. She has married our fear of modern technological advances with a good old-fashioned mystery in the style of Agatha Christie. You don’t know who is going to be picked off next. I did feel a bit side-swiped by the ending. It came suddenly and felt a little like the exposition of a Bond film with a villain hiding in his luxury home in an island, playing god with the guests lives. I think Susi Holliday is an incredibly talented writer. I struggled to fully engage with it though and it didn’t reach the heights of her last novel Violet which was one of my books of the year in 2019. However, if you like mysteries, morally questionable characters, and a bit of sci-fi thrown in then this might be the perfect book for you.
Meet The Author
.J.I. (Susi) Holliday grew up in East Lothian, Scotland. A life-long fan of crime and horror, her short stories have been published in various places, and she was shortlisted for the inaugural CWA Margery Allingham prize. She now lives in London (except when she is in Edinburgh) and loves to travel the world. She has written three crime novels set in the fictional Scottish town of Banktoun, which are a mix of police procedural and psychological thriller. They are: “Black Wood”, “Willow Walk” and “The Damselfly” – all featuring the much loved character, Sergeant Davie Gray.
Her serial killer thriller “The Deaths of December” (written as Susi Holliday), featuring Detective Sergeant Eddie Carmine and Detective Constable Becky Greene was a festive hit in 2017. Her spooky mystery “The Lingering” was released in September 2018, followed by “Violet” – a psychological thriller set on the Trans-Siberian Express – in September 2019. “Violet” has been optioned for film. Writing as Susi Holliday (again!) her next two releases, “The Last Resort” and “Substitute” are due out from Thomas & Mercer late 2020 and summer 2021 – both of these books are suspense thrillers with a technological element (a blend of Black Mirror, Tales of the Unexpected and The Twilight Zone).