Book Review: Sundial by Catriona Ward
Rob Cussen lives in a beautiful California suburb with her handsome husband Irving and two beloved daughters Callie and Annie. But the cracks are beginning to show in her picture-perfect life. Irving cheats on her constantly, and while Annie, the youngest and her favorite, is the sweetest child, Rob worries about strange, friendless twelve-year-old Callie. Still, she’s determined to give her girls the normal, All-American upbringing that was denied her, even if it means putting up with an increasingly awful Irving, whose disdain for her doesn’t emerge through cheating alone. The two engage in knock-down, drag-out fights that sometimes have Rob running for her life:
After a beat of surprise Irving came after me. I ran through the house, doorframes slipping in my grasp. As I went a terrible thing happened. My body remembered this–running, fear, danger panting close behind. It came up suddenly, memory, and took me by the throat. I have to believe that’s why I did what I did next. I opened the front door. The afternoon air was the breath of freedom. But I didn’t run. I waited until Irving came up behind, then I stepped out onto the porch and slammed the door behind me, right on his reaching hand. I actually heard the crunch, followed by his cry of pain. I turned away. I thought, No one can make me do this anymore.
Yet she can’t find it in herself to leave him, not even when she knows his sneaking around has managed to give Annie chickenpox. She’s determined to grin and bear her awful marriage for the sake of giving her daughters a stable, two-parent family life. That is until an incident between her children forces her to finally confront the truth that she’s been trying to obscure behind this crumbling model of suburban propriety.
Shocked into action by the violence on display between her kids, Rob decides to take Callie, the instigator, back with her to her family’s place out in the Mojave desert. She tells Irving that she and Callie need some bonding time, but what she’s really trying to figure out is exactly how much of her family’s legacy she needs to initiate her eldest child into. Irving is reluctant to see them go but is assured by the fact that Rob would never leave him without taking Annie as well. Being the abusive person that he is, however, he makes a point of pulling Callie aside while Rob is packing the car:
“Be careful out there, bud,” Dad said, warm in my ear. Dad and I are best buds. “If you get scared out there you call me.”
“Why would I get scared?”
“Your mom… she can be a little unstable.”
I felt a thrill of fear. I knew what he meant. The crying, the screaming late at night. Always yelling at Dad. She lies, too. I can always tell, even if she doesn’t know it herself. For example, Mom doesn’t like me, even though she swears she does.
As Rob and Callie embark on their road trip, Rob considers how much to tell the girl about her own past and the truth behind Sundial, the estate where everything started and, if they’re lucky, where everything will end as well. More importantly, she has to decide what to do about the untenable situation that is turning Callie into a creepy adolescent, obsessed with bones, ghosts, and murder. Could explaining her heritage to Callie help save her? Or will it only make things immeasurably worse?
Told from both Rob and Callie’s perspectives, Sundial is an exquisitely frightening puzzle box of a novel that unfolds almost hypnotically as Rob vies for both supremacy and survival with a number of rivals, her eldest daughter included. Rob’s traumatic past has marked her irrevocably, but is it destined to do the same to Callie? Or is Rob merely giving in to the madness in her own blood with her paranoid plans for “saving” her daughter?
I was pleasantly surprised by how few of the plot twists I could foresee in this thrilling tale of complicated, awful families and the ghosts that haunt them. Catriona Ward sets Rob and Callie up as difficult characters to like, but by the end, I was absolutely invested in them both as they raced through a series of epic showdowns. Ms. Ward cleverly unravels their seemingly terrible decisions in wholly unexpected yet eminently realistic ways, making this one of the most startlingly good, convincing horror novels I’ve ever read.