June 01, 2017

Burntown - Jennifer McMahon

Doubleday Canada, April 25, 2017.

Four Stars

The only other book I’ve read by McMahon is The Night Sister, which was more of a traditional thriller, although it too had paranormal elements. Burntown is more complex, but it is somehow also more subtle. It is a horror novel, but the characters have a depth that isn’t always found in the genre. It begins in suburbia in the 1970s, but develops into a contemporary, industrial caper through gritty city streets and crumbling abandoned buildings.

As a young child, Miles witnessed his mother being murdered by a man wearing a chicken mask. Despite Miles’ testimony, his father becomes the main suspect and eventually commits suicide – or so everyone thinks. Miles is removed from life as he knows it, and grows up to marry his childhood sweetheart, Lily. Their daughter Eva’s best memories are of watching her father invent strange new things, such as dolls with hidden compartments for her to explore. However, Miles’ most important invention is a machine that allows people to speak to their deceased loved ones – the machine was based on blueprints left behind by Miles’ father, and supposedly designed by Thomas Edison.

One night, a terrible storm destroys Miles and Lily’s idyllic farmhouse – the river overruns its banks, and Eva wakes up on the shore with a head injury that has affected her memories. Her mother tells her that her father and brother are dead, and that they are being pursued by an evil man. Eva’s name is changed to Necco – after her favourite candy – and she and Lily go off the grid and into hiding on the streets of the city. Necco adapts to her life on the run, and she is even happy in her naïve way – until her mother is killed and her boyfriend is murdered while he sleeps beside her. Suddenly, Necco knows her past has come back to haunt her.

With Necco’s face plastered all over the news, wanted for the murder of her boyfriend, she connects with two unlikely friends – both women who are on quests of their own – and the three of them work together, following the clues to piece Necco’s past together. They meet the “fire-eating” women who live on the riverbank, and end up staging their own enchanted circus.

The “chicken man” is on a search for vengeance, but the paranormal fears he inspires are not as outright frightening as in The Night Sister. Although slow in parts, the novel is suspenseful – it is more thoughtful, like a puzzle to be pieced together. The story is surreal, imaginative and even whimsical at times, yet it is also dark and stormy. Like Necco, we cannot see who is good and who is evil until it is almost too late. There are influences of Alice Hoffman’s magic realism and Stephen King’s horror – although my initial comparison was to Lauren Beukes’ urban fantasy novels. Altogether, this novel was odd and unusual, but surprisingly captivating. I highly recommend this to any fans of McMahon or of unconventional horror novels with intriguing characters.

I received this book from Doubleday Canada and Goodreads First Reads in exchange for an honest review.

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