Out: November 3, 2020
I’m a sucker for down-the-rabbit-hole alternative world fiction. Kingfisher’s version is eerie and dark, as opposed to the more whimsical and fantastical versions of Lewis Carroll or Neil Gaiman. [While the latter have their share of tense moments, an adventurous person would still chase those experiences, but through Kingfisher’s looking glass is a world that everyone who wanders in immediately wants to escape.]
The book is set in and around a museum in a tourist trap town in the southern US. This museum is what would have been called a “cabinet of curiosities” back in the day, which is to say it combines natural history displays with a bit of a freak show aspect to spice things up. This setting contributes nicely to the story, offering both a suitably weird environment to lend credulity to the anomalous happenings and a suitably creepy environment to make the climax a harrowing experience.
The story revolves around a recently divorced woman named Kara (nickname: Carrot) who goes to live and work at Wonder Museum, her uncle’s cabinet of curiosities. She does this because she’s a gig-economy graphic designer without enough gigs to put her in a home of her own, because she wishes to avoid moving in with a mother who can be overbearing, and because her beloved Uncle Earl could use a hand as he’s getting up in years. When Uncle Earl has to get knee surgery and must leave the museum in Kara’s hands, all hell breaks loose by way of the opening of a portal to a parallel universe.
I should point out that the book isn’t dark and foreboding throughout, the main character and her sidekick / barista-next-door, Simon, provide plenty of comic relief, and we do get a good bit of character development for Kara in early chapters. I think the story benefits from what some might find a slow-burn opening. It’s intriguing to see how Kara is in emotional turmoil in the beginning over her failed marriage and lack of stable income, but then the trials of the story put matters into perspective for her.
Like the Algernon Blackwood novella (i.e. “The Willows”) that influenced it, this story manages to be a chilling and visceral experience without at all being gratuitously graphic or wantonly murderous. While some would classify it “horror,” it might better be considered a tale of the weird. The author does a fine job of creating atmosphere. In one sense, this concision of gruesomeness might be seen as a more impressive than in Blackwood’s story because Kingfisher’s characters are set in their everyday lives and thus the story has to shift between lighthearted and grim – whereas, Blackwood’s story about a couple of guys canoeing a remote stretch of the Danube River was able to be starker throughout. (As I recall, it’s been a while since I read “The Willows.”)
I found this book to be gripping. It kept my attention throughout with a mix of humor, gallows humor, and bleak moments. My most intense criticism involves the description of events leading up to, as well as during, the climax. There were moments where my attention was drawn from the story to asking questions (e.g. why was that so easy? Why was that so hard? Or, why didn’t she do X?) It might just be me, but I felt that in the attempt to maintain a fast pace, the author may have glossed over some challenges. That said, it’s fair to point out that the character is sleep-deprived and terrified at this point, so maybe this approach was (consciously or un-) an attempt to capture Kara’s disjointed state of mind, and maybe I was simply overreading. At any rate, I thought the book resolved strongly and was plotted smartly.
If you like alternative worlds fiction – and don’t mind it being a visceral experience – this would be a great book to check out.