Thanks to Rosie Amber (from Rosie’s Book Review Team, check here if you would like to have your book reviewed) and to the author for providing me with an ARC copy of this novel, that I freely chose to review.
When I read the description of Painted I knew I had to read it, as it was a horror novel (and despite how much I like the genre, I don’t seem to read many of them), and it had to do with art. When I read that the author had worked in the antiques family business; that sealed the deal for me. I had not read any work by this author before (and I understand this is the first time she writes horror) but I am pleased to have discovered her.
I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but let’s say we have a dead painter who left very specific instructions in his will as to how to deal with the artwork he left behind. Unfortunately, there had been changes at his lawyer’s and his instructions were ignored. And we all know what happens when we ignore warnings, don’t we?
There are authors who are better at building characters than at creating a plot, and there are also authors who excel at describing places and objects but are not so good at providing psychological insights. McKenzie manages to create a great gothic atmosphere (some reviewers have said that the novel is more gothic than pure horror, but both things do not exclude each other), with a fantastically eerie and creepy house, full of even creepier portraits, and a variety of objects, furniture, and even plants that all combine to create a fabulous setting for the novel. In fact, the house becomes another character, one that hides many secrets, and of course, many ghosts.
But the author also creates fully-fledged characters, with their passions, foibles, secrets (some darker than others), and stories. Even when we do not get to share much time with them, we get flashes of their personality (be it because of their fastidiousness about their personal appearance, or because of the way they hang on to mementos from the past, or the way they present a false and harmless persona to the world when they are anything but). She manages to do this by using a variety of techniques, especially by her particular use of point of view. The story is written in the third person, but it shares the points of views of different characters. There is a certain degree of head-hopping, although I did not find it confusing and it is very smoothly done. We do see things from the perspective of all the characters. We mostly follow Anita, the young woman sent by the auctioneer’s to catalogue the paintings, because she is the first one to arrive and she spends the most time at the house, but we even get an insight into the thoughts of the lawyer’s secretary and of the farmer’s dog. And of course, the baddies (although it is not easy to decide who is good and bad in the story). There are also moments when we are told something that none of the characters could know (a great way of creating suspense and forecasting future events), like references to shadows, sounds nobody has heard yet, and things that happen behind character’s back or when they are asleep.
The character easiest to empathise and later sympathise with is Anita. It is clear from the beginning that she is battling with something that happened to her in the past and is bravely trying to get on with her life (despite still experiencing symptoms of PTSD). Her story is terrible in its own right, and it makes her reactions to what happens more justified. Some characters are nasty and difficult to like (like the lawyer), but most of them are given interesting backgrounds and scenes that make them memorable, and some are much more twisted than we realise.
I loved the details of the process of cataloguing the house contents (as I love antiques and TV programmes about antiques. Yes, I could watch The Antiques Roadshow forever and never get bored), the descriptions of the painting process, and the pace of the novel. The atmosphere is created slowly and we follow the characters’ commonsensical approach to the events to begin with and share with them their descent into paranoia and utter horror. The step-by-step reveal, the twists and turns, and the ghosts (it reminded me of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James) are also masterly rendered. And the ending… No, I did not see it coming, and as a fan of unhappy endings in horror books, this manages to satisfy, to surprise and to leave us wondering.
This is psychological horror, with ghosts and haunted house, at its best, and it does not contain gore or extreme violence (there is more menace and imagining than there is anything explicit), so I would recommend it to lovers of the genre, and to those who love atmospheric readings and don’t mind a scare or two. I cannot comment on the author’s previous writing, but she definitely has a talent for this genre, and based on the quality of her writing, I’m sure we’ll hear more from her.