People come to The Angelsea, a rooming house near the beach, for many reasons. Some come to get some sleep, because here, you sleep like the dead. Dora arrives seeking solitude and escape from reality. Instead, she finds a place haunted by the drowned and desperate, who speak through the sleeping inhabitants. She fears sleep herself, terrified that the ghosts of her daughters will tell her “it’s your fault we’re dead.” At the same time, she’d give anything to hear from them one more time.
This haunting story starts with Dora’s arrival at The Angelsea. To her relief, there’s no one at the reception desk but she finds the key to her room where the landlord had told her it would be, in a lock box that wasn’t locked … “It looks locked and that’s the main thing.” By the time I’d reached the end of the very short opening paragraph I already knew that this was going to be a story in which nothing would be as it appeared on the surface, and that I needed to be prepared for the unexpected and the disturbing.
The rooming house is dilapidated, cramped and rundown and it is inhabited by people who are, in one way or another, equally broken. All are seeking an escape from their past experiences and actions but there is also an acknowledgement that the past is something they should neither talk nor ask about. The Angelsea’s reputation as a place where it’s possible to “sleep like the dead” is a powerful draw for those who cannot sleep, but they discover that when they achieve the sleep they crave, it is populated by ghosts. Many years earlier there had been a shipwreck on the coast, with all lives lost, and the spirits of the sailors, needing their voices to be heard, use the sleeping inhabitants to tell their stories.
Dora’s quest for peace, understanding, forgiveness and justice takes her on an unexpected, horrific and at times surreal journey, a journey which drew me into the story in an unrelentingly powerful way. The pain and confusion of her grief, guilt and desperation were compellingly conveyed throughout the telling of her story, making her a character it was possible to feel empathy with. However, equally finely drawn and vivid were all of the other characters, each of whom had a story which demanded attention and recognition. Considering how short this story is, I think this is a mark of the author’s remarkable skill at being able to make every single word count in her creation of convincing, memorable characters.
This isn’t a story it’s possible to pick up and put down at leisure. Rather like the ghosts, it demands to be listened to and to be heard, whatever the horrors it uncovers, whatever the unpleasant truths it reveals. It’s dark; it’s disturbing; it feels visceral in the way in which it taps into a deep fear of not having our voice heard, our history recognised, our feelings taken into account and our motivations understood. Yet it is also a story which offers the chance of redemption, forgiveness, justice and, eventually, cathartic resolution.
As I wasn’t able to write my review immediately after I’d finished reading this brilliant, perfectly-paced and controlled story, I decided to reread it so that it would be really fresh in my mind when I came to reflect on it. Even though I’d retained very vivid recollections from my first reading, its impact proved no less powerful the second time around and I’m now left with the feeling that it truly has “seeped into my bones like oil.” I feel in awe of Kaaron Warren’s ability to write a story which feels simultaneously other-worldly and yet entirely recognisable, as well as to create so many unforgettable characters in such a short novella. This is the first of her stories I’ve read, but I’m determined it won’t be the last.
Linda Hepworth 5/5
Into Bones Like Oil by Kaaron Warren
Meerkat Press 9781946154422 pbk Nov 2019