For her second novel, Where Monsters Lie, Polly Ho-Yen has made a brave and brilliant leap from the inner city tower blocks of her first novel, Boy in the Tower, to an imagined village on the shores of a Scottish loch where Effie lives with her parents and younger brother.
The village is small, claustrophobic. Everyone knows everyone; blood lines are knotted together and unbreakable, particularly if, like Effie, there are hints of being an outsider. The water is menacing and unfriendly. Keep away, the elders say. Keep away, so the legend goes, because there are monsters in the water.
Like her first book (reviewed here), Ho-Yen establishes a powerful, memorable setting – one which provides an intriguing canvas for her narrative to unfold.
And in both books Ho-Yen uses the psychological flaws of adults to develop a strong and admirable main character – children who are burdened by the shortcomings of others and who, as many children do, become the care-giver, the provider, the organiser. In Boy in the Tower, Abe’s Mum barely leaves the flat, unable to be a Mum and often unable to lift her head from the pillow.
There is a similar shadow in Where Monsters Lie; Effie’s Mum has a darkness and a depression. She is tortured by the presence of the loch and the local legend, pedalled by the domineering, all-knowing elders of the village. In this book Ho-Yen is braver with this aspect of the story and her book is all the more powerful because of it. There is tragedy and sadness and high, high drama in the relationship between Effie and her Mum. The emotional blows land hard, and land again. It is in these passages that Ho-Yen shows just what a fearless writer she can be.
Layered on top of this – on top of the monsters in the mind and in the soul – is the monster in the lake. What a proposition for a story; is the monster real or imagined? All sense dictates that it’s a tale, something passed on to keep children away from the dangers of the water, or a spooky story to be told by the camp fire. Nonsense, of course. That is, until strange things start to happen.
Boy in the Tower was a stunning debut. Where Monsters Lie is a brilliantly imagined, bold and thrilling follow up. An absolutely non-negotiable (we’ll fall out if you don’t) must read.