Just Like Home

Book cover: Just Like Home - Sarah GaileyWhen her dying mother summons her after years of estrangement, Vera reluctantly returns to the house her father built. The house where it all happened. A house as haunted as Vera herself…

I’ve always enjoyed Sarah Gailey’s work, but their recent pivot from alt history to off-kilter, sharp-edged thrillers driven by intimate personal drama has converted me from a passive admirer to an ardent fan. Where The Echo Wife examined toxic marriages and the stupidity of cloning your ex-wife (seriously dude, you didn’t think it through), Just Like Home tackles toxic families and trauma and the way these shape who we are – and who we want to be.

Vera Crowder has never been allowed to escape her past. Since being banished from her childhood home by her resentful mother, she has bounced from one dead-end job to the next, one short-term let to the next eviction. Nobody wants a Crowder around. She could have changed her name, of course, but it’s all she has left of her father and a time when things were better. A time when she was loved. When she had a place. A place where she knew who she was, and what she could be. A place that she can now return to, although she’ll find no welcome.

Just Like Home alternates Vera’s cutting interactions with her mother Daphne in the present with rose-tinted memories of her childhood. Where her mother shows her nothing but bitterness and cruelty, her father always had love and approval – until Vera screwed everything up. Her guilt is as deep as her loneliness. While I feel a little daft tiptoeing around a spoiler that’s in the blurb, I loved the way Gailey layered my creeping unease by avoiding direct references to the sins that have dogged Vera’s adult life. Everyone except the reader knows what happened at the Crowder house. I heartily recommend skipping that blurb and following in young Vera’s footsteps to discover the truth with her (and scream over her shoulder, even when she doesn’t. I did much screaming. Oh, Brandon).

In the present, the question of the Crowder house is even more tangled. The family are reviled by the community of course, but the house attracts tourists – and artists – and their willingness to pay for access has kept Daphne afloat down the years. Current artist-in-residence James Duvall is full of insincere charm, determined to persuade Vera to open up to him. Lonely and loathed, Vera needs a friend – but Duvall is the last person she’d turn to.

When strange things start happening to Vera in the house, they are sufficiently ambiguous that multiple rational explanations offer themselves up. Just how far is Duvall willing to go? Just how reliable a narrator is Vera? As she cleans and clears the detritus of Daphne’s life to prepare the house for sale, she discovers fragments of her father’s diaries hidden around the house – notes that have somehow survived the intervening years unscathed; notes that echo his love for her. At night, her bedroom becomes a place of terror, echoing childhood fears of monsters under her bed. In daylight, it’s easy to blame Duvall. In the dark, Vera isn’t so sure.

Yes, there’s a lot packaged up in this fraught, desperately unpleasant tale, but Gailey pulls it together with aplomb. Here horror is reframed as the background tenor of a life, love and respect as something you long for from monsters – and feel for them in return. My biggest question throughout was just how many monsters lived in the Crowder house.

There are two ways to end a narrative like this: hewing to ambiguity or revealing your truth, whatever it is. Whichever you choose, you’ll leave some readers dismayed. Crafty writer Gailey chooses an ending that is both unambiguous and that stubborn readers can still choose to consider metaphor. Surely that doesn’t happen. It’s just Vera’s way of making sense of the world, right? Right?

Just Like Home is not a redemptive tale. It’s a dark, cracked mirror held up to the societal ideal of happy childhoods and uncomplicated feelings about family. It’s uncomfortable and painful and walks the tightrope of helping the reader understands the characters’ terrible choices, even if not all readers will be able to empathise with them. The result is excellent, tense and unsettling from start to finish.

I received a free digital copy from the publisher, and bought a copy of the audiobook narrated by Xe Sands – who, as usual, makes everything she reads even better.