Lauren St John is a big, big name in children’s publishing, with her African Adventures series, The Laura Marlin Mysteries, and most recent bestseller, The One Dollar Horse. Now, though, she has set her sights on the adult world: The Obituary Writer is her first published work of adult fiction. It is both lyrical and dark, wild and tame, and sure to be a success.
The premise: London journalist Nick is living a happy-shallow city life as an obituary writer for The Times, but when his commuter train crashes, his life buckles and smashes like the carriages and people around him. It is one of the worst crashes in British history, but Nick somehow walks away. There is PTSD and survivor’s guilt, but he is seemingly otherwise unhurt - except for the living nightmares that soon begin to plague him. These are dark and creepy and bleed into his waking hours, his day job, his personal life. What does it mean? How can he escape them?
A book written in two parts, the first half sucks you into Nick’s mind and sets a tidy pace as he tries to swaddle himself away from the world and his dreams. It’s creepy and dark and intriguing, and impossible to imagine where it’s going to go. Part two of The Obituary Writer, though, is quite a different beast. Forced by a confluence of events to flee London, Nick seeks solace in Cornwall. His mind is set on a particular course of action, but at the last possible moment it is changed by the vision of a woman, barefoot, on horseback, galloping across the sands of Porthcurno beach. St John’s description of the Cornish air and countryside is so vivid that it’s little surprise Nick’s encounter sets him in a new direction – reading it was enough to make me want to jump out of bed (at midnight, no less) and go and bury my own toes in the sand.
As Nick settles into a new life in Cornwall, at first it seems as if he has left London's demons behind him, but they are only biding their time, soon to raise their ugly heads in ways that are new and just as confusing for our protagonist. It is a constant struggle to find the delicate balance between normal life and his internal fears. The storyline is not as smooth-running and shiney as in St John’s writing for children and here and there just a little convoluted – clearly she knew where she wanted to get Nick to by the end of the book, but the process of getting there is at times not as sharp as in her other writing. Woven into this journey, though, are tremours of darkness, hints at Nick’s confusion over his past and his present. Events float out and around him almost as in a fog, and you know that something, something is going to happen to bring it all to a head, but what? Each time St John puts another rock in his path, you start to wonder, is this how it will end, is this what it means, but then he navigates around it, until, until… the letter.
Nick is both likeable and unlikeable; he has plenty of flaws, but he means well. He has a big ginger cat, Oliver, who is a character in the story all on his own, adding extra life to Nick and his troubles. The thing is that Nick means well, but even when things start to work out for him, part of him left behind by the accident remains shut off. It’s almost as if he knows what is going to happen, what it all means, but like many of his demons, he doesn’t much like having to confront them. Just like most people. I like that St John leaves the ending ever so slightly open – I can take away what I think happened, what I think was written in that letter, but I do wonder, does anybody ever find it? What does it say?
Overall, The Obituary Writer, like Nick’s dreams, casts a shadow of mottled degrees, like clouds on a sunny day: dark in places, lighter in others, with different textures in between. It is hot and cold, a story with an overcast, and a sign that Lauren St John is here to stay.