Scandal, sex and secrets in a crumbling country pile await us in Megan Taylor’s latest dark novel, a coming-of-age tragedy packed with prose so vivid it leaps off the page.
In fact, it’s Taylor’s poetic handling of the narrative that stands out – and I need to start this review by applauding her. Where other writers strip their prose bare, We Wait is lush and full, and every so often it’s worth pausing to simply admire a great sentence. There are many here, from plush scene-setting to an abundance of animated characterisation, and multiple narrators too – a structure and style which I found enriched my experience of the story. I like my prose dripping with description, so thank you, Megan, for being a top-notch supplier. Once you start reading this, you’ll know what I mean when I say the novel is deliciously fat – and this is most definitely a compliment.
We first meet 15-year-olds Maddie and Ellie in the hot summer of 2016. The inseparable best friends are heading to Greywaters, the seat of the Crawley family. It is narrated in turns by Ellie and 40-something Natalie Crawley, Maddie’s long-suffering aunt, who absolutely doesn’t want the girls in the house. Ellie, plagued by nightmares and sleepwalking, is escaping the trauma of caring for a cancer-ravaged mum. Maddie is fleeing the consequences of a scandal involving her teacher and Greywaters offers the solace they are seeking… or does it? Natalie is not the easiest of housemates. She resents being forced into the role of full-time carer to her mother, the sick Crawley matriarch who resides upstairs unseen, and the tension between aunt and niece is cranked up to breaking point within a few hours of their arrival. Introverted Ellie doesn’t understand it, and nor do we, and then we are let into the tension between Ellie and Maddie… talk about the turn of the screw, and these are just the opening pages!
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Then there’s the ominous-sounding Greywaters, a character in itself. The sprawling mansion must have been glorious once. Now it just about survives in a state of fading grandeur where everything is done correctly (real candlelight at dinner, Ellie notes) but under a permanent sheen of fusty damp and cracked plaster. Natalie feels trapped by the house while her brother Hugo enjoys a wealthy, stress-free existence in London, yet ironically for the younger girls, it offers them the freedom to explore different sides of their natures. Friends since early childhood, Ellie is a self-confessed watcher and in Maddie’s shadow. She takes pride in Maddie’s achievements more than her own and has enjoyed watching her friend blossom. She’s a sweet, gentle girl with a lot of love to give, and the reader quite rightly cheers for her from the off. The difference between the girls and uptight and angry Natalie couldn’t be more apparent – yet, as with any good novel, there are clues that all is not as it seems. Natalie, we discover, is haunted by her distant past as much as Ellie and Maddie are haunted by their present situations. Their arrival sparks something inevitable. We Wait makes great use of that fatalistic feel; the idea that these people are desperately running away from something unavoidable is palpable.
As tensions rise, we are taken back to another hot summer, this time in 1986, with different narrators and therefore a refreshingly different perspective, but with unnervingly similar tensions. The past and present are expertly entwined, with a volley of ‘aha!’ moments coming thick and fast as the narrative draws close to its inevitably tragic end. Taylor’s delicate handling of the younger character’s narratives is triumphant. She portrays the uncertainty and confusion of growing up with the most elegant of touches. The pages simmer with teenage lust and experimentation, and again, that sense of inevitability is threaded through their actions.
And the author makes fantastic use of darkness, describing it in dozens of different ways, and so viscerally you can almost feel the dark slithering and slipping and gliding at you from the pages. Shadows too: Greywaters, as its non-too-pretty moniker suggests, is not a house of light. Its rooms are banked with gloom, where light flutters weakly – almost in vain. A handy expression, of course, of the emotional shadows and darkness hanging over its occupants.
As the weather bakes outside, Greywaters is as untouchable then as it is in 2016; a dark, ever-looming presence encapsulated by a mysterious group of unnamed narrators who “all day, every day” wait patiently for history to tragically repeat itself. And the irony of their patience (and therefore the title) isn’t lost, either: Taylor dangles some bait, makes us wait, and then wait some more before we are satisfied. She is a deft storyteller. If you like your thrills and chills darkly unsettling, she’s the one for you.
We Wait by Megan Taylor is published by Eyrie Press. Buy the book.