A startling genre mash-up that will be the most original book you read this year. Honest.
This was an ARC given to me in exchange for an honest review
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Where to start with Leech?
Let’s start with genre.
This is an ambitious mash up of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, gothic suspense and body horror. If I had to describe it I would say it’s The Thing meets Rebecca meets the Fallout video games, but such attempts at comparison almost do it a disservice, like describing Dostoevsky as that long-winded Russian guy.
Setting wise, we are in a post-apocalyptic world, where thousands of years after the fall of an advanced society, a new world is slowly reclaiming the ruined wastes, using the advanced tech of its predecessors to try and survive in an environmentally brutal landscape. Plot wise, we begin with a doctor arriving at a mansion – inhabited by the governor of a mining town – to replace their predecessor who killed himself in mysterious circumstances, only to discover that a new and deadly parasite has begun to infect the town and, most worryingly, the mansion itself.
With a sound that could turn the hardest of stomachs, I scoop out the body’s left eye. It does not yield easily, and as I tug away from the clinging extraocular muscles, a few ropes of dark fluid drip from the discoloured scera. A black, hairlike substance that I cannot identify clings to the optic nerve.
To say any more would, I think, spoil it. In particular, there is something (as far as I am aware) gloriously unique about the narrative voice of this work that instantly marks this book out as something special. The back of the novel blurb sort of gives it away (although it’s so vague that I’m not sure someone with no foreknowledge of the book would get it) and I’m sure most reviews do too, but honestly the less you know the better so I’m going to stubbornly remain annoyingly vague here. Suffice to say, the use of narrative voice here is so startlingly original and interesting that it makes this novel, by this device alone, one of the most original of the year so far. At first it’s confusing, so much so less attentive readers might take a while to twig what the true nature is of the protagonist or at least how their mind works, but when you realise what is happening it is one of the most pleasing feelings in a genre novel: that sense of new ground being covered and the sense of glorious and fearless narrative invention. Honestly, it is brave and it works.
A patient once told me that there are as many ways to die as there are drops in the acid sea. I disagree. Though the sea is vast, I am certain it is finite.
Anyway, enough of vague. Let’s get more specific. As I said, this a genre mash-up of post-apocalyptic SFF, and gothic and body horror. The body horror is beautifully done in a squeamish and disgusting sense. I winced at some of the horrific fates of some of the characters here and the vivid, glutinous descriptions of the parasite itself, and by wincing I mean I made sure not to read this straight after a meal. There’s a birth scene in particular that must not under any circumstances be read by a pregnant woman.
But for all the John Carpenter goodness, this is in many ways more of a gothic horror. In the mansion itself there is a supremely messed up family dynamic, and in true Gothic style, the deep secrets of the family will unravel to threaten them all. These create some of the most memorable scenes; I was particular enamoured with the descriptions of the mealtimes, where a vicious, bullying patriarch, himself built together with a bizarre series of life-extending tubing and machinery, turns mealtimes into a grotesque challenge to see who can make it to dessert. There’s even a strange set of young twins with alleged powers, giving an odd Shining vibe to the whole thing. The careful way this blend of gothic is woven into the main parasite storyline is deftly done and results in a satisfyingly explosive ending beloved of such single-setting gothic storylines.
The systematic collection of all medical necessities has guaranteed my survival, so that even those who dislike or distrust me must call on me in their hour of need [….] Just as I need others, I am needed. To be needed, I suspect, is fundamental to being human.
Then there is the worldbuilding. Slow at first, it’s not until the end of the novel we really get a handle on what has happened to this world, but it feels earned when we do. In the meantime there’s lots to enjoy; this is a world inhabited by monsters of both radiation and (possibly) old-tech design; strange deadly storm-based creatures that rove the wild snow wastes. It’s a world racked by storms, earthquakes, and meteors, but one in which its inhabitants utilise in some ways incredibly advanced technology in their fight to reclaim the world. It’s a world where food is grown out of rock, so messed up is the world’s biosphere.
Ennes has thought about dialect and the etymology of their words too; the inhabitants of this town, the Montish, have a pleasingly bizarre future-Gallic themed dialect, sort of like if the French were forced underground for a few centuries. There is a joy of language and post-apocalyptic culture here too; a pleasing fusion of the rustic and the technologically savvy. I should also note that Ennes’ writing is lyrical and thoughtful; a slight discordant note in their descriptions that remind you of the uniqueness of his narrator. This is the kind of writing where each sentence has its place, and has been curated carefully.
As Émile disappears into the hallway, I cannot help but wonder if I have missed a valuable opportunity. His eyes are sharp, his mind sharper, and if the origin of his muteness is neural or psychogenic rather than psychological, it is likely I could repair it. But he is too old now, and there is no shortage of bright, talented human beings available to me. I do not need Émile, and I like him enough that I would rather not obliterate him.
Perhaps the true achievement of this novel though, other than the remarkable narrative device I alluded to earlier, is in the themes and character development, and how both are intertwined. Running through this novel like a stick of rock are themes of identity – the idea of a single personality being continually challenged, and the morality of possession and whether one person’s survival merits the extinguishing of the essence of another. I’m sure there are more, but these are the ones that jumped out at me anyway. The way Ennes chooses to explore these themes is by a second act switch of narrator (in a way, ahem) that is both breath-taking in its audacity and fascinating in the philosophical questions it raises. By the end you are not really sure who the narrator is anymore, and this is perhaps the point: identity is a fluid thing, this novel told me, and to try and grasp it is to misunderstand its nature.
Then, like the best novels, there is a plot line of a seeming secondary character that unravels beautifully, suggesting that underneath all the eye-removing, orifice-seeping horror and sci-fi machinations, this novel is a simple story about abuse and a character’s freedom from it. It’s deftly done, perhaps too subtle, but never feels like an odd development.
Overall, this is an astonishingly original achievement, a milestone in science fiction and horror, and deserves all the awards I hope it gets shortlisted for. One of the joys of reading is coming across something that you haven’t seen before, and seeing it done well. This is one of those reading experiences that reminds you how effective a sensory experience reading can really be; and how it can take you to places you never expected in ways you never envisioned.
It’s a true marvel.