The Weight of Loss by Sally Oliver
|The Weight of Loss by Sally Oliver|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Stephen Leach|
|Summary: If body horror is your thing, you’ll enjoy this. A slow-moving and reflective but ultimately engrossing thriller with a strong emotional core.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 320||Date: June 2022|
|External links: Author's website|
Marianne is grieving. Traumatised after the death of her sister, she awakes to find strange, thick black hairs sprouting from the bones of her spine which steadily increase in size and volume. Her GP, diagnosing the odd phenomenon as a physical reaction to her grief, recommends she go to stay at Nede, an experimental new treatment centre in Wales. Yet something strange is happening to Marianne and the other patients at Nede: a metamorphosis of a kind. As Marianne's memories threaten to overwhelm her, Nede offers her release from this cycle of memory and pain—but only at a terrible price: that of identity itself.
This was such an eerie and unusual read. The structure of the novel and its narrative style both contribute to the overall sense of strangeness: Oliver's language is frequently flowery, leaning into ostentatious word choices and some rather overdone metaphors. But as much as I initially disliked this, on reflection I'm given to think that it actually works, working to craft a languid, frequently dreamlike tone and pace. Reading this novel at times feels like picking your way through a dark and empty house.
Interweaved with the present-day story are chapters leading up to the story’s beginning, providing context for what's happening. We get to know Marianne's younger sister Marie, and witness her in the months and weeks leading to her death. This works beautifully: Oliver starkly illustrates the pain of being around someone ill, who cannot be helped, and how powerless it makes those unable to save them. I expected to find these segments difficult or sluggish, but they were vital to the overall story and the novel wouldn’t have worked half as well without them.
Perhaps most eerie of all is the physical change Marianne undergoes throughout the plot: namely the strange cluster of black hairs along her spine. While initially merely an unsettling image, this progresses into full body horror, the descriptions deeply unsettling and utterly gruesome (and I ran my hand over my spine a few times while reading just to make sure…) It may be a cliché, but spine-tingling is absolutely the right term here.
The scenes at Nede actually take place comparatively late into the book: a lot of time is given over in the present-day story to Marianne struggling to cope with her grief before she heads to the facility. This is interesting – the book could easily have been another hundred pages, with the departure being the midpoint of the story – but the plot progresses very quickly once Marianne arrives. This wasn't totally dissatisfying but did feel oddly paced – and the novel's climax happens very quickly, giving little room to reflect on what’s been revealed. This is hard to talk about without revealing it. It's not exactly a twist, but it both is and isn't satisfying: it resists any temptation to be conclusive and final, but ties the whole thing together in a way that makes sense. I was left somewhat dumbstruck by it, but I think it worked overall.
As I said, though, it's odd. Will be thinking about this one for some time.
I got major Sarah Pinborough vibes from this book. Go read some of her books if you liked this one: The Death House and 13 Minutes are standouts.
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