Books

{Book Review} Home Before Dark by Riley Sager

We all have been told, at some point or another, something about our childhood. A parent mentions a movie you watched a hundred times, a blanket you refused to leave the house without, or just a habit you had trouble dropping.

 But how many times have you not remembered these memories? How much is lost to time? And how do you know that what you are told about your childhood is even true? And, what if, there was a best selling book about a particular portion of your childhood that you don’t really remember? How much is memory and how much is from the book?

This is the major theme of Riley Sager’s new novel, Home Before Dark. After running out of Bainberry Hall in the middle of the night at the age of 5, only a few weeks into her family’s stay there, Maggie Holt’s father wrote a best selling book on the family living in the haunted house called House of Horrors. But despite being a famous part of the story, Maggie has no memory of her short time in Bainberry Hall. And when her father passes away years later Maggie learns that he still owned the house and left it to her. She stays in the house with the idea of fixing it up for resale and also discovering whatever she can about her past.

In his previous novels, Sager has brought modern ideas into recognizable troupes, characters, and settings from the horror genre. His mysteries work with and against the typical concepts we have developed as fans, making it difficult to see what twist might come next.

In Home Before Dark, the concept is one everyone knows well, the haunted house. But instead of concentrating on the ghosts in a house, the story spends more time on its haunted past and the past of the people that lived there.

The novel has a similar feel to Sager’s previous works, a mystery in first person with a strong, if a bit flawed, female protagonist. Sager manages to tell quick, but well built stories that can usually be read in just a couple of days depending on the amount of reading you manage in a sitting.

The story is told with each chapter alternating between Maggie’s current day and chapters from her father’s book. This is an interesting style, taking hints from Maggie’s side of things and explaining them in her father’s book. It also makes the question of what is and isn’t real that much harder to figure out. The book seems plausible enough as the story goes and the more Maggie learns the more she starts to believe that there’s more truth to the book than she initially thought.

Great as a concept, but the execution falls a little short. For one thing, the book House of Horrors doesn’t read all that differently from the main story. The font is different with the title over the top of each page to let the reader know at a glance they are reading part of the fictional book, but aside from that little difference, the sections aren’t much like a nonfiction account at all. The question of if the book is real or not is a bit ridiculous because it reads like a piece of fiction from the very beginning.

Sager’s typical style tends to rely on the mystery at hand, with character development happening alongside the investigation. Unfortunately, because this book reads like two books in one and is fairly short at less than 400 pages, the characters don’t have a lot of room to navigate. Outside of Maggie, we barely have much time to spend with the characters she interacts with. The end reveal ends up feeling underwhelming, because the characters involved just haven’t had much time with the reader because half of the chapters take place in House of Horrors. This also makes the final portion feel rushed, with a lot of the climax and explanation coming in only the last 15 pages.

While the mystery is compelling, along with the ideas of memory that go with it, there’s a lot that feels left out. Maggie discovering the real parts of her father’s book are interesting, but start to lose steam halfway in when more and more of the account appears to have really happened leaving little guessing as to what’s real and what isn’t. That, along with the limited time with the other characters, makes the book feel like it’s missing something. With another 100 or so pages to flesh it out, Home Before Dark could have given more development to secondary characters and explored some really interesting themes more.

Despite its shortcomings, Sager’s skill at building mystery and tension is enough to make the book enjoyable. For fans of mystery, it’s not a book they would regret reading and certainly isn’t a bad read for fans of Sager’s other works. But for newcomers, they’d be better off starting with his first novel Final Girls or even last year’s Lock Every Door before sitting down with this one.

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