Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #33: The Orphan Choir by Sophie Hannah

proxyPart of Hammer Horror’s new book series, where they get well-known novelists to write them horror novellas (though most seem to push the definition of novella, size-wise), this is a bone-rattling hair-curling good read from poet/crime novelist Hannah. It starts off with a total first world problem – the thoroughly upper-middle-class Louise has her bedtime disturbed by a noisy neighbour. Louise lives in Cambridge, in a million-pound Victorian  terrace house. Her slightly wet husband is planning home renovation – classic displacement act, apparently – while she is quietly bereft of her son, seven years old and at boarding school. The boarding school is part of the gilded trap she lives in. Everyone thinks it’s a wonderful opportunity for her son, Joseph, a talented singer now part of an elite choir, and he’s happy there. But Louise can’t stand not having him at home, and her frayed nerves are torn to shreds by the 80s soft rock anthems her neighbour inflicts on her during his weekend parties.

As someone who once came home from surgery, lay down on her bed, and was instantly woken by a builder playing bloody Coldplay metres from her head, my sympathies were with Louise. Her neighbour is a classic boor, a selfish stoner who mocks her when she asks him to turn it down, and during those scenes I was white knuckled with rage, not fear. Hannah is brilliant at this – winding you up with primal fears hidden in domestic settings. Her wry sense of humour shines through, especially in Louise’s assessment of her fellow choir parents and the patronising choirmaster. The drip, drip of micro-aggressions, lack of understanding from her duffer of a husband, and sleep deprivation drive her to desperation.

The second half of the story is where the spookiness ramps up. In the book’s afterword, the author says she set out to write a proper ghost story, and not leave the reader with an ambiguous ‘was it real or was it in her head?’ Turn of the Screw-style ending. I think she’s effective at that, though personally I think I enjoyed the first half’s depiction of suburban contentment falling to pieces more than the eerie second section. This probably says a lot about me. But it was a satisfying read, and carried off the first person narrator very well.