Broken, scarred, and mentally and physically fatigued following a hit-and-run accident, things couldn’t get much worse for Paul Roan. He and his girlfriend had moved to the coastal village of Southwick to open a B&B following a near-calamitous accident in his old job as a first officer on a Boeing 777. That dream is now soured, as after six months spent in coma he awakens to find his partner has vanished.
That’s not all. Something strange is happening here; on the beaches things aren’t what they seem, and the townsfolk see Paul as a kind of sin-eater, purging the shadows of their past by putting their personal objects to the flame. But it’s not just the detritus of the locals he must contend with, as he struggles to regain a sense of balance in a world in which the boundaries appear to be blurring.
The canvas on which Conrad Williams is writing is a bleak and harsh one. His painting of Southwick is of a near desolate area, at times seeming more a dreamscape than a real place. Paul’s viewpoints on his surroundings are often formed in near stream of conscious thought, which convey a sense of the incomplete, ill-formed and sometimes confused. This style works well and for a good portion of the novel I was drawn between double guessing what was going on, whilst being equally impressed by the world which had been created here.
Loss of Separation is a horror novel, and how can I say this without seeming too contrary, that’s both in your face and equally subtle in the delivery of its terrors. Its shocks are delivered through a blanket of obfuscation, the undermined menace that lingers on its boundaries are almost hallucinatory, and thus questionable throughout the book. Williams has you doubting your own interpretation of events, as much as the narrator’s versions, and the skill needed to pull this off is no small thing.
Paul’s partnership with the nurse who takes care of him following the accident is intriguing, as is the friendship he builds with a few of the villagers. All carry a tragic tale about them, none more so than Amy, with whom he tries to piece together clues about the town and its past which begin to rear their head. Hints of ancient magic, ritual and rite abound, but don’t ever bog down what is a far more comprehensive psychological study in horror.
Meanwhile, he refuses to give up looking for his girlfriend Tamara, and this added mystery is kept alive through the book as another dreadful enigma patiently waiting to be unwrapped. As the book reaches a heady conclusion, the sense of purposeful confusion set in place is quite unflagging and acts as a steady bedrock for the answering of questions that will have cropped up along the way for the reader.
Despite the theme of desolation and feelings of nihilism which seems to underpin the book, it’s an addictive and intriguing read. Whilst bleak, there is an underlying raw beauty to the world which Williams has created here. Nonetheless, the harrowing vision in Loss of Separation drives home the horror, and makes this one book which the canon is all the better off for.