One of the pleasures of reviewing books on a blog is that from time to time an author will suggest you read their book, and as a result a little gem drops into your lap completely out of the blue, something that you would never, ever have found by yourself. This is one such book. It’s rather a shame, actually, that the paranormal aspect will cause it to fall into a genre black hole, because it truly deserves a wider audience. Yes, it’s paranormal fantasy, and perhaps it’s technically urban, too, but it’s not a romance, and there are no vampires or werewolves. It’s about people, and the choices they make, and it’s much closer to literary fiction than fantasy.
The premise is a simple one. Five friends from university days hold a reunion twenty years later on the eve of the predicted Mayan calendar apocalypse. During the evening, all five of them are mysteriously shown an alternate life and get to choose which one to stay in: the current life or the alternate. The five alternate histories are, in certain ways, like short stories, but they are all compelling and they fit perfectly into the overall story arc without feeling forced. There are some odd pacing choices – the earlier episodes are noticeably longer than the later ones, which puts them right on the edge of starting to drag. Quincey’s alternate history in particular was both slow and overly schmaltzy, and I really wanted to hurry things along to find out how she would choose. Fortunately, the author’s elegant writing style stops things from tipping over into overt sentimentality.
As the five step into their alternate existences, and decide which of the two lives they will choose, we learn a great deal about each of them, their personalities, the influences for good or bad on them, and their relationships. The choices are never easy, and in at least one case heart-wrenchingly difficult, but there are no right or wrong answers here, and this is not about correcting past mistakes. Rather, it’s about who you want to be, who you are and about being true to yourself, even if that means giving up something else along the way. These are profound questions, and I’m sure everyone who reads this will find themselves in contemplative mood afterwards.
The ending is deeply poignant, and yet perfectly fitting. This is a beautiful book, elegantly written, with wonderful and memorable characters, and a thought-provoking subtext. It is barely-there fantasy, and would fit comfortably into mainstream literature. If the author hadn’t suggested I try it, I would probably have passed over it as being ‘not my thing’, and I would have missed a treat. The only minor criticism is that some of the alternate lives are slightly idealised, but I enjoyed it so much I can overlook that. Five stars.