There are so many cliches we use in the world of book blogging but it’s hard not to use them when all of them applied to this original and unusual novel. This was an unputdownable, page turning, keep me up all night, edge of your seat thriller with intriguing characters and exotic settings.
It was refreshing to read a thriller with a female protagonist who steals all of the limelight. Added to that she has a feisty female travel partner. In a genre where women are often prey and merely a catalyst for the real action, these women more than hold their own. Violet has tired of Thailand and her boyfriend wants to stay put. Far from being the island paradise she expected Thailand has become about the same scene, people and drugs. Violet decides to follow their itinerary without him and she does it in style. She makes her way to China but feels strangely alone and dislocated. When trying to organise a ticket for the Trans-Siberian railway Violet overhears a girl talking to the travel agent about her spare ticket. Her friend has had an accident and can’t travel, but the travel agent is no help and the girl has a spare ticket on her hands. Violet follows her to a bar and engineers a meeting that turns into dinner and many drinks. By the next day Violet has scored a ticket and a new travel companion in Carrie. By this time we have a few doubts about our narrator and I worried for Carrie and whether she knew what she was taking on board.
The rest of the novel is told in sections through Violet’s eyes and the emails that Carrie sends back to her injured friend back home. The girls have a stop off in Mongolia where they experience Nomadic life, sheep’s milk tea and a shamanic experience that threatens to put their friendship on a very different footing. Violet reads like someone with borderline personality disorder; despite her narration I don’t feel a coherent sense of self. I don’t think Violet knows who she is. Carrie starts to have her own doubts on the train and tries to create some space by befriending other passengers. Violet starts to panic. What if Carrie decides to go her separate ways? Violet’s friendship has become obsessive and potentially dangerous. However, when we reach Russia we start to see what both girls are really capable of.
The brilliance of Holliday’s writing is that we never really know what the girls are going to do next. This is not helped by the copious amounts of drink and drugs the girls partake in. It’s like being on a rollercoaster ride blindfolded. Just when you think you’ve worked Violet out, something else happens and your opinion changes. I loved the travel detail as well. It isn’t romanticised. It’s scuzzy and grimy. It dispels the backpacker myth of Thailand being a paradise better than The Beach did. Mongolia was at least an authentic experience, but the thought of ewe’s milk tea was grim. I loved the gritty realism and and the psychological manipulation. Living for a while in Violet’s head shows us how dark, obsessional jealousy manifests and left me feeling very uneasy. How much do we really know about what’s going on in someone else’s head? After all this, Holliday still surprised me with a final twist I didn’t see coming that turned everything I thought I knew on its head. It was like seeing The Sixth Sense for the first time, you want to pop back to the beginning and see it all over again with fresh eyes and try to pick up the clues. I read the end of this novel at 2am and was so blown away I had to wake up my other half and tell him all about it. This is definitely one of my books of the year.
Published 14th September 2019 by Orenda Books
Meet the Author
Susi (S.J.I.) Holliday is the bestselling Scottish author of 10 novels, a novella and many short stories. By day she works in pharmaceuticals. She lives in London (except when she’s in Edinburgh) and she loves to travel the world.