Terror, revenge and intrigue on Sydney’s northern beaches. Yes, you’re reading this correctly.
It’s not often that you encounter a psychological thriller set in Manly. But that’s exactly where Rebecca James’ new novel unfolds, amid the sun, the surf and the seagulls. It’s familiar territory, which is certainly a novelty for me.
Sweet Damage is the story of Tim, a twenty-something surfer guy who’s working at his father’s restaurant on the Manly Corso and flatting with his manipulative ex-girlfriend, Lilla. When he gets the opportunity to rent a room in a beautiful Fairlight mansion for just $100 a week, he’s certain there must be a catch. And there is, in a way, in the form of his secretive, young landlady – Anna. After suffering a breakdown, she’s developed agoraphobia and hasn’t ventured outside in months. Still, Tim thinks he can handle it. Until his feelings for Anna start to get complicated and mysterious and frightening things start happening in the house.
So what’s good about this book?
Well for starters, it’s a very easy read. Not too long and consistently suspenseful – you can probably knock it over in a few sittings. It’s very similar to James’ first novel, Beautiful Malice, which I reviewed here. The main character, Tim, is a decent sort of bloke. Granted, he’s what my mother would call a ‘no-hoper’ – surfing, sleeping, drinking beer and generally living a life of leisure. But his heart seems to be in the right place and he’s likable enough that you’re willing to stick with him. Plus, he cooks – so that gets him points from me.
Lilla, the ex-girlfriend, is an excellent villain. Although she’s strikingly similar to the villain from James’ last novel, I suppose it’s not a crime for an author to revisit a character that works well. Lilla is a catastrophe waiting to happen – you’re on edge whenever she’s in a scene. She’s an addictive personality, the kind of person you come back to even though they make you feel like crap about 90% of the time. I’m sure many of us have the misfortune of knowing a Lilla – whether they’re a friend, an acquaintance or a love interest.
The house, ‘Fairview’, is where most of the drama unfolds. An old house is always a great setting for a story. I love places with a strong human history, places that seem to capture threads of people’s lives and preserve the shadows of their occupants long after they’re gone. ‘Fairview’ takes on a life of its own in the opening pages. It’s an important presence in the story and given Anna’s mental state, the house becomes her whole life – an eerie reminder that she is trapped in her past.
The book sets a cracking pace, but unfortunately deteriorates towards the end. It’s always a bit disappointing when the conclusion you’re predicting, the ending which is going to be shocking and dramatic and oh so satisfying – never eventuates. I was eager to finish and perhaps I was reading too quickly, but many of the delicate threads that appeared to lead to an elegant conclusion were tangled in the final chapters. If you’re keen to read this one, I’ll let you form your own judgements because things are about to get a bit spoilerly.
Ultimately, the sinister incidents in the house are Lilla’s doing. For reasons that I won’t go into, Lilla feels she’s entitled to Anna’s money and is trying to get her out of the picture. For me, the heart of the problem was I didn’t understand why growing up in Narrabeen turned Lilla into such a psychopath. I know the area and while it’s not the most glorious suburb in Sydney, it’s not quite the crisis situation you might imagine. Her quest for revenge seems ridiculously elaborate. Maybe my sociopathic tendencies are more pronounced than I thought, but I reckon I could brainstorm at least half a dozen more effective schemes.
While the conclusion left me a little puzzled, I won’t dissuade you from giving this book a go. It’s not the most intellectual of reads, but it’s a great, light story. While we might like to pretend we spend all our time flicking through coffee table classics and engaging in casual literary criticism with a glass of red wine – I certainly prefer to read for entertainment. And Sweet Damage is definitely entertaining. So if you’d like a taste of northern beaches drama (haha), this one might before you.
“In my dreams it’s as if the house has sinister intentions, as if its very foundations contain a malignant force that seeps into the floors and walls and contaminates the lives of all who enter. In real life though, it wasn’t Fairview that was responsible for what happened. It was the people who did the damage.”