The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Stuart Turton, author; James Cameron Stewart, narrator
This is one of the most cleverly written, imaginative stories that I have ever read. I had difficulty keeping up with the number of characters and their lives, and I am amazed that the author was eventually able to sort them all out, solve all of their mysteries and knit everything seamlessly together.
Basically, the story is about Aiden Bishop. He found himself trapped in a place called Black Heath, although he has no idea why he is there. He had eight days in which to solve a murder in order to be freed. If he failed, the scenario would begin again, and he would start from scratch, reliving the eight days, albeit a bit differently each time. He would have to keep attempting to either prevent a murder or to find the killer. These are the rules of the game. Each day he would awaken inside the body of a new host. There were 8 hosts. Each had a different personality and a different reason for being in this place and attending the masked ball to celebrate Evelyn Hardcastle’s return home after having lived for almost two decades in Paris. Evelyn was to be married to a man she didn’t love in order to rescue her family from financial ruin. Evelyn was also the murder victim. Aiden had to get to know each host in order to find the murderer, but he was not the only person trying to solve this crime. Only one of them would be able to win this contest and earn release. Therefore, he would be in danger from the other guests.
When Aiden awoke in his first host, he had no memory of his own identity or of his reason for being on the floor of a forest, covered with what he thought at first was wine, but was actually his blood. He was dressed in a tuxedo so he knew he must have been at some kind of an event, but he had no further memories in his head. He heard a woman cry for help and he somehow recalled a name. As she fled her pursuer, he unexpectedly called out the name Anna, and gave chase, but he was unsuccessful in his rescue attempt. Lost and confused, he found his way to a mansion with the help of a compass thrown into his pocket by the very person chasing the woman he believed was someone named Anna. When the door of the house opens, he is recognized by the people inside who lead him up to his room and call a doctor to attend to his wounds. Although they call him Sebastian Bell, he has no idea why. He doesn’t know who Bell is, nor does he know who he is, at this time. When he discovers that he is Aiden Bishop, known as the Laudanum Doctor, he is not very proud of himself, but he has no time to think about it. For the next eight days, when he awakens from sleep, he will be in the body of a different host trying to discover his secrets. In each host he lives out the same story, albeit with subtle changes and sometimes, even, he awakes on the day before, rather than the next day. Every time he falls asleep, he awakens in another host, and if he falls asleep more than once in a day, he sometimes finds he awakes in several hosts, and he even awakes in some of the hosts more than once.
Although he has only 8 days to solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle, the task is made even more difficult by the fact that he actually believes that he saw her commit suicide and was not murdered. He must solve this “murder/suicide” by learning the secrets of each of his 8 hosts. He must learn what they know in order to piece together all the clues and gain his freedom. None of them are exactly who they pretend to be, and some are actually his enemies, intent on killing him. He will be forced to suffer the pain from the injuries his hosts are subjected to, and he will also inflict injuries upon others that his hosts wish to harm. Although he knows that only one person will be allowed to solve the murder and escape Black Heath, he is determined to find a way to take Anna with him. He refuses to leave without her and will return again and again, he insists, if necessary, until he can determine an escape for her, as well.
He learns that the people in Black Heath are there because they did something really horrible. Only the worst offenders, the worst people are kept there. They are supposed to be in Black Heath for rehabilitation, but few ever leave. He learns that he is the only one there voluntarily, and for that reason, one of the characters, “the Plague Doctor” who seems to be calling the shots and making the rules, is helping him with little hints. That is why he is allowed to keep the memories of the things he learns over the eight days. The others begin each day with their minds wiped clean. This makes it almost impossible for them to solve the murder without forcing others to help, because they can’t hold onto the facts that they learn. Black Heath is like a prison, a personal hell for most of the people he meets. He cannot trust any of them who offer to help him because they all have secrets. They will use each other to get information, but only Aiden will retain it.
Although the tale has its grotesque moments, there are also several moments of subtle humor, in the occasional comment inserted into the dialogue. As each day begins and Aiden lives in another host, it is sometimes repetitious, but the same events are offered to Aiden, ever so slightly different, in order to reveal another clue. He learns many secrets and has to put them all together to solve the crime. His efforts are hampered by the condition of the host he occupies. He suffers from their afflictions, physical, mental and emotional, and must make a determined effort to remain Aiden and not give himself over completely to the mind and body he is occupying.
Aiden discovers that it is revenge that drove him to Black Heath. However, as Aiden learns to forgive and show compassion, to trust and love again, he finds his way back and helps himself and others earn redemption.
This was an interesting read, delving into a world of fantasy which was a living hell for some. It was sometimes tedious because of the necessary repetition each day. Also, there were so many different characters, personalities and secrets to keep track of, that it was often hard to remember them. It was necessary to pay careful attention to the narrative, and perhaps I should have taken notes, as well. It would have made it easier to follow the storyline. Each time he awoke in a different character, I struggled to remind myself who it was and what part he played.
The narrator did very well describing the personalities of the different characters, speaking softly or gruffly, as a woman or a man, old or young, very effectively. The characters were all multidimensional, but none were very likeable. The author deserves an award just for keeping track of them all and for weaving together an impossibly complicated story with so many tangents. I thought he would never be able to merge them, but merge them he did!