Brother and sister Violet and Luke live on their own in their huge, decaying family home. Their absent parents are artists, travelling their bohemian way through Europe and spending what little of the family money is left, having furnished their offspring with none. Desperate times call for desperate measures and when Vi’s advert offering their guest house for rent is answered by a mysterious – and exceptionally handsome – young man rejoicing in the rather unlikely name of River, she is only too ready to accept his money. From the moment he arrives, the narrative is seeded with improbability and eeriness, but as Vi finds herself increasingly attracted to him, she initially pushes aside her misgivings.
It soon becomes chillingly clear that River is able to command a power which enables him to subdue negative emotions and thus exert his will on others – a slice of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, here. He is beginning to lose control of this power and when a rumour about the Devil’s presence in a local graveyard runs through the community, followed by a series of horrifyingly gruesome killings the reader assumes that it is he who is to blame.
It is here that the plot begins to dig deeper, to explore the complexities of the main characters and to fracture and repair the connections and alliances between them with a number of imaginative twists. Old family histories and secrets emerge, themselves corruptions of body and mind, and no-one is quite what they seem or can wholly be trusted. Running parallel to this darkness is the story of Vi falling in love for the first time in her life – what should be a rich and exciting period is instead fraught with danger and mistrust. Here the language falters somewhat from the often poetic to the sometimes purple – it is the gentler moments in the book which are the least convincing linguistically.
Tucholke is in command of her sinuous, densely interwoven plot and has left the narrative door standing open for a sequel. The level of graphic violence in the novel is often disturbing but the exploration of realities and fantasies is thought-provoking. This is clearly suited to the screen and, with its fashionable blend of romance and horror, may soon find itself there.