Fifteen years ago, Susan Morrow left her first husband, Edward Sheffield, an unpublished writer. Now, she’s enduring middle class suburbia as a doctor’s wife, when out of the blue she receives a package containing the manuscript of her ex-husband’s first novel. He writes asking her to read the book; she was always his best critic, he says.
As Susan reads, she’s drawn into the fictional life of Tony Hastings, a math professor driving his family to their summer-house in Maine, and as we read with her, we too become lost in Sheffield’s thriller. As the Hastings’ ordinary, civilized lives are disastrously, violently sent off course, Susan is plunged back into the past, forced to confront the darkness that inhabits her and driven to name the fear that gnaws at her future and will change her life.
Nocturnal Animals was a hit movie which was released towards the end of last year starring Jake Gyllenhaal who, lets face it, never does light-hearted rom-coms so I was expecting the novel of the same name to be dark and twisted and boy was I right! The book was originally released in 1993 as Tony and Susan and was a critical success, it was re-released last year as Nocturnal Animals to tie in with the film and was our book club read for April.
Nocturnal Animals is a book within a book. Firstly we have Susan who has been sent a copy of a manuscript by her ex-husband Edward and throughout the course of the novel we learn about her life with Edward, their subsequent divorce and her life now. Then we have Edward’s manuscript which is the story of Tony and the life changing events that he encounters. I love a book within a book, and loved the frustration and anticipation of wanting to know what happened next in Tony’s story and being unable to do so as we have to read at Susan’s pace.
The opening section of Edward’s book is quite simply, terrifying. It depicts Tony, his wife Helen and daughter Laura travelling to their holiday home in Maine and encountering the evil Ray and his friends. I read this section in bed and ended up texting my fellow book club member and friend to ask if she knew whether my Kindle would break if I put it in the fridge a la Joey from Friends as I was so terrified. The suspense was built so gradually it was almost imperceptible and there was a general feeling of ominous doom which radiated from the pages.
Sadly, once we got beyond this section it went downhill for me. I couldn’t really get on board with Tony’s actions and found Edward and Susan unlikable; it is very difficult (for me) to connect with a book if I dislike the characters. They were thinly drawn and at times I was unable to differentiate between some of the characters and had to keep flicking back to check which person we were reading about. Susan’s family for instance was confusing, I was two-thirds of the way through the book before I realised that one of the characters was her cat and not in fact her daughter.
This book got a wide range of scores at book club, ranging from a 1 all the way up to 9 out of ten but, even though it provoked a massive discussion it was generally disliked – a synopsis of our book club meeting can be found here.
Soon after finishing the book I watched the film (something I generally avoid as in my experience films are rarely as good as books – except for the Harry Potter films and perhaps The Martian and Gone Girl) and, this is something I have never said before, the film is far superior. It fleshes out the characters, cuts out the superfluous drivel and is a tight, dark and enjoyable film which is well worth a watch!