In Lauren Oliver's best-selling Delirium trilogy, aimed at teens missing their Hunger Games hit, love is the enemy. In a dystopian future, citizens are "cured" of this state-classified disease when they reach their 18th birthday, forced to submit to a surgical procedure or die rather horribly.
Rooms [Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk] is the author's first novel for an adult audience and its cast of characters is similarly afflicted by love or, rather, its side effects: disappointment, grief and violence. If all that sounds rather melodramatic, Oliver clearly didn't think so. The rooms in the novel's title are haunted by three ghosts and two deaths, as well as four members of the same family struggling to come to terms with the death of Richard Walker, a bad father and worse husband.
Gothic is not an easy genre to sell to a modern audience and initially Oliver manages not to overdo either the ghoulishness or the haunted-house setting. The novel’s spliced narrative structure helps: the ghostly voices of Sandra and Alice, two unhappy women unable to let go of the frustrations of their earthly lives, alternate between telling their own stories and observations about the comings and goings in the house.
There’s Caroline, Richard Walker’s bitter, alcoholic ex-wife; her 27-year-old daughter Minna, who tries to heal memories of childhood abuse with numerous casual sexual encounters as an adult; and Trenton, the spotty and suicidal 16-year-old who’s never been kissed. A third ghost, a young girl, makes a dramatic appearance nearly a third of the way into the novel’s 300 pages.
If none of the above sounds like an uplifting read, there’s intrigue and no little suspense to keep readers turning the pages. Oliver’s writing is rather polished, and at times poetic, particularly in describing the almost physical relationship that the ghostly Sandra and Alice have with the house. Their spirits inhabit its walls and floor, trying to voice their thoughts through creeks and exploding light bulbs. After Walker’s death, Alice says: “In the quietness, we drift. We reclaim the spaces that Richard colonised. We must regrow into ourselves – clumsily, the way that a body, after a long illness, still moves in fits and starts.”
The novel begins and ends with a conflagration as Alice longs to be free – and she’s not the only one. Every character in this novel seems to be seeking some sort of emotional release that can only be won by voicing a secret and acknowledging a truth.
Take Caroline, who’s obsessed with knowing about her ex-husband’s “mistress”, for example. Her rival turns up for the funeral just as Caroline’s working her way through the drinks’ cabinet and she ends up trying to shoot the woman before making peace: “All at once and in one second, the past and its ruin of promises and disappointments had released its hold on her. She was filled with a golden warmth that made her limbs feel loose and light…
“It was all over now. She did not have to forgive him and she could love him and hate him at the same time, and it was all right.”
Whether or not the reader shares in the characters’ journey towards enlightenment is really the wider point here. If you’re going to write a novel in which none of the characters are particularly likeable and their life stories are more ordinary than tragic, then your audience has to find some other lure to make it stay the course. In this Oliver fails by signposting too often and too brightly where the novel is heading.
In the same way that the fire that ends the novel starts on the first page, the probable source of Minna’s unhappiness (a music teacher who sexually abuses her in the basement) is none too subtly suggested by the fact that she once took a sledgehammer to her piano and the fact that Trenton nicknamed him Mr Handsy. Then, there is Sandra’s childhood friend Cissy who commits suicide after years of being sexually abused by her stepfather and tortured by a jealous mother.
In layering on these secrets to the point where the reader feels as suffocated as Alice (or Minna or Caroline or Trenton), Oliver is attempting to build suspense within the Gothic tradition, but the many truths being revealed are actually rather mundane. Early on, on page 67, for example, Oliver writes: “That’s what a broken heart looks like … . Like a haunting … . It isn’t worth it, Sandra. Remember that.”
Finally, the success of Rooms depends on whether, as a reader, you care whether Minna finds peace from the "rot" within or Trenton finds the courage to chase girls rather than count barbiturate pills. Or, whether you need spelt out how easily the relationship between parent and child can sour. If the answer to any of these questions is no, then even the mysterious identity of the ghostly child cannot save this modern family melodrama.
Clare Dight is the editor of The Review.