Cuckoo by Sophie Draper
Caro Crowther, the nervous, vulnerable protagonist. is reunited with her older sister Steph at their funeral of their stepmother Elizabeth, who brought them up after their father's early death and has now died from a fall. Neither sister has any affection for the late Elizabeth, and Caro and Steph haven't spoken since Steph ran away from home in her teens, leaving the nine-year-old Caro in their stepmother's clutches, and Caro is stunned when Steph signs over her half of the sisters' unexpected inheritance to Caro.
Fleeing from an abusive relationship and, as a freelance illustrator, unable to afford to rent a room in London, Caro moves into the old family home while the estate is being settled. When she arrives, she's met by a broken bannister and a bloodstained floor, the legacy of her stepmother's fatal accident, and is soon unsettled by strange noises, the disappearance of personal belongings and her own patchy memories of her traumatic childhood. Is the house really haunted? And if so, by what?
The other mystery is that of Caro's own past, which she tries to piece together from her patchy childhood memories, Elizabeth's personal effects and her conversations with Steph. There's also the matter of Craig, a tenant whose cottage Caro will also own as part of Elizabeth's estate and who soon becomes a regular visitor.
This is one of those books in the heroine seems to be in a constant state of nervous jeopardy, and we're left to try to determine which of the other characters, if any, can be trusted. It's also packed with elements that feel straight from a slow-build psychological horror film, to the point where my credulity was seriously stretched. Caro's current work project is a set of illustrations for a book of sinister fairy tales. The house is cut off by snow. The lights keep going out. And Caro is also traumatised by the memory of 'the pear drum', Elizabeth's hurdy-gurdy*, and the horrible tale associated with it that tormented her throughout her childhood. It is atmospheric and it is creepy. Subtle, however, it is not, especially combined with some of the melodramatic excesses of the plot, and there were times when the use of so many tropes just made me snort.
There is an additional problem which often surfaces in this genre: the plot means that the central character is constantly nervous and fearful and struggles with being able to determine people's motives, and that makes her rather irritating company. Caro is mostly passive and seems incapable of looking after herself properly, and is understandably pathetically grateful for any personal interaction in which people are even moderately kind to her. This would be endearing in a rescue dog, but soon becomes quite tiresome in a human being, especially if they don't seem to have any other notable characteristics. Of course it's important that Caro is vulnerable and in danger, but I felt she could have had a bit more agency at times and been just that little bit more shrewd.
None of the characters really stood out for me, except for the dead Elizabeth whose presence hangs over the story like that of Rebecca de Winter. Unfortunately her awfulness is, however, slightly camp, with shades of Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest, and I couldn't take her at all seriously. Similarly, one shocking flashback moment was so OTT that I laughed at what should have been a horrific tragedy.
Cuckoo was a diverting enough read - at no point was I bored - and at times it is truly atmospheric, with some strong set-piece moments. But as a whole, it's just too much, and after a while I found myself snorting at each melodramatic turn.
*I will fight anyone who tries to tell that the hurdy-gurdy is not the most sinister of all the instruments.