Book Review – Girl In The Walls by A.J. Gnuse

Pages: 359
Published: 18th March 2021
Genre: General Fiction
Trigger warnings: Bullying/Ableism, frightening scenes

She doesn’t exist. She can’t exist.

Elise knows every inch of the house. She knows which boards will creak. She knows where the gaps are in the walls. She knows which parts can take her in, hide her away. It’s home, after all. The home her parents made for her. And home is where you stay, no matter what.

Eddie is a teenager now, almost a grown-up. He must no longer believe in the girl he sometimes sees out of the corner of his eye. He needs her to disappear. But when his fierce older brother senses her, too, they are faced with the question of how to get rid of someone they aren’t sure even exists.

And, if they cast her out, what other threats might they invite into their home?

To accurately describe this book is just as incomprehensible as the thought of a living, breathing person taking up residence within the walls of your house. It uses a concept that is both intriguing and tantalising, with the writing suitably mysterious and poetic to match, although the end result is somewhat mixed as glimpses of great storytelling are offset by inconsistent pacing and poorly developed plot points.

As initial expectations of a supernatural element prove unfounded, it becomes a difficult one to place into a particular genre. Set in a relatively contemporary time period, it might be considered in some ways a mystery, yet then again there are some characteristics of speculative fiction and some quite frightening scenes which give vibes belonging to a thriller or even horror. While it is not always gripping, it is definitely thought-provoking.

When her parents died, Elise was taken away to live with foster parents, but escaped in order to return to the house she grew up in. Now she lives there in secret, concealing herself from the new owners and their two children Marshall and Eddie, in the spaces behind the walls and the fissures inside items of furniture.

During the day when the family are out, she takes the opportunity to watch their television and eat the food that would otherwise be wasted, being careful to make sure everything is as she found it when they return. She is then discovered in the house by a local boy called Brody, with whom she shares all of her hiding places and the secrets of how to live there undetected.

However, Eddie is convinced that there is something strange going on at his house and that something else is living there aside from he and his family. His parent dismiss the idea, but then Marshall also begins to wonder if they might not be alone. Together, the two brothers come up with a plan to find who or what is lurking in the walls, but it ends up putting both themselves and Elise in serious danger.

The beginning is mystical and with such a fascinating concept at play it was fun to see Elise’s world emerge and unfold. So many questions arise at this point, as you are made to wonder how she could possibly exist in such a life, and what kind of connection she might eventually forge with Eddie, who seemingly senses her enigmatic presence.

However, once the novelty has worn off, the pace does rather deteriorate for much of the first half of the book. The chapters are extremely short in length and although they are full of eloquent descriptions, there are some in which absolutely nothing happens and that causes the plot to stand still for too long. Then once Marshall and Eddie unite to try and unearth Elise, the pace increases dramatically and certain things happen which are not clearly explained.

Some of the developments later on are surprising. It begins with the arrival of a rather fearsome villain who is obsessive and deranged, acting to Elise as a kind of physical manifestation of the bogeyman. This creates an abundance of tension and leaves you holding on to every word, but this comes at the expense of other characters not receiving the resolutions they deserve. For example, Marshall and Eddie just disappear abruptly from the story.

It is almost all told in the third person, with the chapters rarely more than a couple of pages in length. The focus is primarily on Elise and it was interesting to live in her quiet, careful world where she is very much a real person but made to feel almost ethereal, and even by the end we still do not know a great deal about her. The problems arrive when other points of view are added to the mix, and it is not immediately clear who they belong to.

As for the other characters, Brody is also something of a mystery as like Elise, his parents seem to be absent. His character development was excellent; crafty to start with and then very sweet as he makes it his duty to look out for Elise. Meanwhile, Eddie is likeable and easy to connect with due to his unassuming nature, and even Marshall becomes slightly more reasonable after initially being an awful bully towards his brother.

The house and its surrounding rural landscape makes for such a captivating, evocative setting. The climate is oppressive and that, along with the danger posed by her pursuer late on in the book, exacerbates Elise’s feeling of vulnerability. It was fun to imagine her moving between the little gaps in the walls like the shadow which we see upon the cover, and I particularly loved the clock which emits the call of a different bird depending on the hour.

There is a noticeable atmosphere to the story and that really comes through in the author’s writing style, which is full of lyrical descriptions and metaphors, all applied with a lightness of touch. This becomes somewhat haunting once Marshall and Eddie actively start looking for Elise, and the author does demonstrate a vivid imagination even if it was a bit tricky to understand the meaning behind some of the more abstract sentences.

Overall, this is a novel that fully immerses you in the enchanting world of an extraordinary character and showcases excellent creativity, but at the same time turns out to be confused and lacking in clarity. Despite all the intrigue it is hard to build a genuine connection to the story, even if its uniqueness ensures that it will live long in the memory.

Girl In The Walls marks the first foray into novel writing for A.J. Gnuse, whose previous work has been almost exclusively short stories, something which is evident from the length of the chapters here. Those short stories have been published in numerous magazines such as Los Angeles Review and Gulf Coast Online.

Originally from New Orleans, he now resides in Texas.

This book represents a compelling work of speculative fiction and it has the setting and quality of writing to go along with it. The problem lies in terms of a lack of development and clarity, so it did not quite live up to my expectations.

My rating: ⭐⭐⭐

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