The Visitor’s Book (2015) by Sophie Hannah

visitorsbook
Sophie Hannah gave a talk at my local library back in October. I’ve not read much of her work (one novel and a handful of poems) but I was intrigued enough to go along, despite the fact that it was at a really awkward hour after work and I didn’t have enough time to go home first. In the end my colleague and I retired to a pub round the corner, drank a bottle of wine, waltzed into the talk half-tipsy and proceeded to wolf down all the complimentary tea and biscuits we could lay our hands on before it started. Ho hum. That’ll teach ‘em for holding an event at seven o’clock on a school night.

It’s been ages since I last went to an author event, mainly because there’s a part of me that wonders whether they’re a bit self-indulgent whilst the other is all indignant and secretly gets a thrill from hearing authors reading aloud from their own works. I’m so indecisive. It’s a wonder I make up my mind about anything. Thankfully this talk was exactly what I hoped it would be and Hannah was really funny and engaging. She spoke a little about her love for murder mysteries and ghost stories, where she gets her ideas from and how she ended up being commissioned to write the new Hercule Poirot novel.

Quite near the beginning she read an extract from The Visitor’s Book, her newest release, and I was hooked pretty much instantly. I needed to know the secret of that visitor’s book. Unfortunately the same need seems to have gripped everyone else and I wasn’t quick enough to purchase a signed copy at the end (although Hannah did sign another book for me). Thankfully my colleague was luckier and lent me her signed copy last week. I didn’t need to borrow it for long because it’s a really short read, equating roughly to two twenty minute commutes, a cup of tea and a lunch break. Perfect.

The Visitor’s Book is a collection of four supernatural stories. The first of these, the one that inspired the title, is about a young woman who’s unnerved to find that her creepy new boyfriend is a bit obsessed with getting her to sign the visitor’s book in his suburban terraced house in Walthamstow. It’s the best of the four stories I think and I really enjoyed all that to-ing and fro-ing between the couple about whether it’s a bit pretentious to have such a book in a rather ordinary home. The dialogue feels really natural and easy. I liked it.

The other stories feature a small boy left behind at a party, a woman who starts seeing living dead people and a resentful mum plotting her revenge on the other women gathered in a school playground. Two of these were a little predictable and I didn’t particularly enjoy them but I quite liked the lady who saw dead people who were really alive (or live people who were really dead if that’s a better way of putting it). It was weird but that’s probably the reason why I liked it.

I’ve read a few ghost stories recently and I’ve found all of them disappointingly unspooky. These weren’t an exception, although that’s not to say I disliked them. Is it just me? Maybe the problem is that they’ve all been short stories? Perhaps you need a bit more time to build up some tension. Or maybe it’s because so many of them have been classics and the things we find scary now are probably different to the things that terrified the Victorians. I don’t know. I should say, though, that I hate being spooked and I never watch or read horror for this reason. But still there’s a little bit of me that wants to be scared by one of these books… How’s that for indecision?

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