The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton

>> Thursday, February 28, 2019

TITLE: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (aka The 71/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle in the US)
AUTHOR: Stuart Turton

PAGES: 528
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury

SETTING: Alternate reality, seems like a version of England between the world wars
TYPE: Speculative fiction

How do you stop a murder that’s already happened?

At a gala party thrown by her parents, Evelyn Hardcastle will be killed--again. She's been murdered hundreds of times, and each day, Aiden Bishop is too late to save her. Doomed to repeat the same day over and over, Aiden's only escape is to solve Evelyn Hardcastle's murder and conquer the shadows of an enemy he struggles to even comprehend--but nothing and no one are quite what they seem.

Deeply atmospheric and ingeniously plotted, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a highly original debut that will appeal to fans of Kate Atkinson and Agatha Christie.
I heard about this book when it won the Costa book awards first novel category last year and there was an interview with the author on Front Row. It sounded intriguing: Agatha Christie + Groundhog Day? What on earth would that look like?

Well, basically, it's like this: a man comes to without any memories, while running in a forest, shouting the name "Anna!". He sees what he thinks is a woman being pursued in the distance, then hears a shot and is convinced he's witnessed a murder. Another man comes to him, places a compass in his hand, and tells him to go east. By doing so, he arrives at a country house where a party is being held, and where people recognise him as one of the guests. He is, understandably, a bit disconcerted by it all.

It turns out he's a soul that has been tasked with finding out the truth about the murder of the titular Evelyn Hardcastle and with getting justice. To do that, he will inhabit the bodies of 8 different people, and live the day during which the murder takes place again and again and again. If he fails at the end of the last day, he starts again.

It all starts out feeling like a bit of a lark, but things start getting darker as we go along. As we discover more and more secrets, we start to care more and truly understand the horror of what's going on.

I really enjoyed reading this, and it turned out to be a more affecting book that I thought it would be during the first sections. For the first half or so, I was enjoying the clever plotting and the almost video game quality of it, but without becoming emotionally involved. But then our main character starts to feel more real, like more of an actual person, and there are quite interesting questions that are explored, albeit not in a terribly explicit way. Who is he, really? He doesn't have memories from before his time in the house, and with each host, he finds the host's personality pressing harder and harder on the dividing line between them and him. So which reactions are truly his, and which are not? I found the exploration of this quite interesting, particularly the way our narrator learns to make this conflict work towards his mission. There is also what feels like real growth and change in the character, when it comes to what we find out about what's really going on and why he's there. I don't want to say much and spoil the ending, but while some aspects of it felt weird and I still don't know how I feel about it, it did all make sense...

I was also impressed by the plotting, both the complexity of it (which was the Agatha Christie element for me, in addition to the setting), and the way Turton was able to take me along as a reader, without requiring me to keep notes or refer back to earlier sections. Honestly, from the way they were talking about it in the Front Row interview I did have some doubts about whether the audiobook would be a good option, but it was absolutely fine. You need to pay attention, but not in an exaggerated way. Also, this was sort of time-travel, which is one of those things that make my head hurt if I try to think about them too hard. So I was surprised by how well it all worked for me, because I tend to avoid time-travel stories precisely because of this.

I must say, though, at the beginning, I was a bit lost, even though I knew the setup I revealed above. But that works, because I was sharing that confusion with the narrator (actually, the narrator is even more confused!). I did have a moment of doubt when I started seeing people around the narrator behaving in very weird, unnatural ways. Is this going to be one of those books were we're just supposed to accept this as the way people would act? But soon even that made sense, because it turns out our narrator gets to keep the memories from when he was in each of his hosts, only losing them if he goes back to the beginning. So his future personas are responsible for some of those 'unnatural' behaviours, and that's perfectly logical.

All this said, I was a bit taken aback by the main character's reactions when he woke up in a host that was morbidly obese. I get it that dealing with a body that just won't do the things that you're used to finding natural, and where you have to put up with your body doing things that are uncomfortable and even embarrassing, would be a bit of a shock. I get that. But some of the language used felt hateful. That element was relatively fleeting, though, so I was able to let it go a bit (and it happens early on, so it didn't leave me with a bad taste in the mouth at the end, which helped).

On the whole, I found this a fun read, and one that felt quite fresh, for all that it's marketing seems to suggest it's a homage to this and that!



Darlynne 28 February 2019 at 15:26  

I am so glad to see this review because I was torn about whether to read the book. It seemed almost inaccessable, not really a good thing for a story, but you actually enjoyed it. My library has it so I will no longer be intimidated. Thanks!

Marianne mcA,  1 March 2019 at 23:06  

I read this book because my youngest was listening to it, and she had all the questions, and wanted to discuss the book with someone. Almost concurrently, my middle daughter read it, because a voracious-reader friend had recommended it as a good read.
So middle daughter (and friend) both really enjoyed it - but youngest daughter was really bothered by a number of things (for instance, she takes issue with the title, because she doesn't think seven is the number), and perhaps that primed me to read the book in a certain light.

I found it slow to start off with but, after the initial set-up, it was definitely readable. But - avoiding spoilers as best I can - and accepting that everything in the book is possible in this universe - I thought the overall explanation made no sense - that it was a terrible (in both senses of the word) method to employ to achieve their stated aims.

And I had a number of questions. I do think some of them might be answered in the text if I reread carefully, because it is a complicated story, but some of it doesn't make sense to me.
To give just one non-spoilerish example - there's a painter who we meet towards the end of the book, who is employed to paint something. To what end?
Interestingly, when I did get to chat to my youngest, our snag lists were different - I had never even wondered if seven was the right number and, frankly, I still can't work it out.

I think mostly we both were just bewildered that no-one else seemed as perplexed by the story as we were.

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