Source: Review copy
Publication: March 10th 2022 from Viper Books
My thanks to Viper Books for an advance copy for review
You can’t escape the desert. You can’t escape Sundial.
Rob fears for her daughters. For Callie, who collects tiny bones and whispers to imaginary friends. For Annie, because of what Callie might do to her. Rob sees a darkness in Callie that reminds her of the family she left behind. She decides to take Callie back to Sundial, her childhood home deep in the Mojave Desert. And there she will have to make a terrible choice.
Callie is afraid of her mother. Rob has begun to look at her strangely. To tell her secrets about her past that both disturb and excite her. And Callie is beginning to wonder if only one of them will leave Sundial alive…
It is a compliment when I say I have never read anything quite like this book. It’s not, I think, a case of hard to categorise, because this is most definitely horror. It is the kind of horror that is an itch that gets inside your brain and begins slowly scratching so that to begin with it niggles and disturbs, then it becomes insistent and all-consuming and eventually it makes you want to turn your brain inside out just to make it stop.
It is the screech of noisy chalk on a blackboard but this screech reaches into your heart, plucks it out and throws it to the coyotes.
This is fiction that sets out to emphasise the macabre and it succeeds in spades, wrong-footing the reader all the way along as it does so.
Set largely in the Mojave Desert, Sundial is the story of two dysfunctional families and whether it is ever possible to stop history repeating itself. Rob’s love for both her children is overwhelming but that only means she worries hugely about the strange behaviour that Callie is exhibiting, because she recognises elements of it and that disturbs her enormously. Sundial is a story that looks at the pressures of motherhood and the nature versus nurture debate, but in a very different way.
Rob is married to Irving and they have two daughters, Callie and Annie. Rob and Irving have a relationship that is pretty toxic and Rob is worried that some of that poison is rubbing off and impacting on Callie’s behaviour.
At her wit’s end, and needing some distance from Irving, she decides to take a mother and daughter trip with Callie into the desert; to the place where Rob grew up.
That place is Sundial and it is at once clear that it was once much more than a family farm. In a dual timeline novel we learn about Rob’s childhood, her relationship with her own sister, Jack and their hippy parents.
The atmosphere that Cat Ward creates is extraordinary. Sundial is such an oppressive, creepy and twisted place. In the midst of the desert, it manages to be both claustrophobic and seriously oppressive.
As you read transfixed by what horrors you are reading, you realise that nothing is quite as it seems. Is Rob an unreliable narrator, or does she simply not remember large parts of her childhood? The more you learn the more creeped out you will become and this twisted, labyrinthine plot will drag you into some deeply disturbing places.
This is the kind of book that gives you nightmares. It seeps into your consciousness and wraps its tentacles around your brain, squeezing hard to intensify the pressure as you read. Cat Ward’s writing is extraordinary. She creates pictures in your mind with her stunning imagery and she is the queen of creepy atmospherics.
Verdict: Sundial is not an easy read, but it is an absolutely spell-binding one. Nothing is quite what it seems, but in the end everything makes perfect sense. Dark, psychologically disturbing, super intense and brilliantly written, Sundial is a book that will stay in your mind for a long, long time.
Catriona Ward was born in Washington, DC and grew up in the US, Kenya, Madagascar, Yemen, and Morocco. Her debut Rawblood won Best Horror Novel at the 2016 British Fantasy Awards, and was a WHSmith Fresh Talent title. Little Eve won the Shirley Jackson Award, was a Guardian best book of 2018 and won the Best Horror Novel at the 2019 British Fantasy Awards. She lives in London and Devon.