Book Review: The Guest House by Robin Morgan-Bentley

Robin Morgan-Bentley's The Guest House is a dark and intense domestic thriller that explores how far one might go to protect the ones they love. Read on for Doreen Sheridan's review!

Wow, I had a really hard time reading this book. Not because it’s bad, which it most certainly isn’t. It’s just such a harrowing, vivid depiction of every parent’s nightmare, I had to put the book down time and again just to catch my breath before pressing on with the propulsive narrative.

Said narrative comes via different viewpoint characters, with chapters shifting back and forth in time as events unfold and our narrators look back on what happened with clearer, perhaps wiser eyes. Jamie and Victoria are our young married protagonists. They’ve struggled for a while to get pregnant, and are now anticipating the arrival of their baby with equal parts terror and joy. In the last few weeks before their due date, they decide to go off on a babymoon in a remote part of the country that has sentimental value for them both. When they find that the place they usually stay in is fully booked, they opt to stay at a cute little guest house run by older couple Fiona and Barry instead.

Alas, things go poorly almost from the start. The food is indifferent, and Jamie is understandably tired of people asking about his disability:

She ushered us in front of her, and out of the corner of my eye, I clocked Fiona noticing my limp.

 

“Oh, what have you done to your leg, Jamie?”

 

Here we go. If I were in a wheelchair and more obviously disabled, people wouldn’t be so brazen as to ask so directly, so quickly. I think people often use it as an icebreaker with me, expecting an anecdote about an injury sustained while playing rugby or falling down in a club.

 

“Oh, it’s a long-term thing, actually. I always walk like this.”

 

I gave my standard answer, and thankfully, Fiona didn’t push it any further.

But then Victoria goes into early labor on their very first night there. What might have been an experience worthy of an indifferent Yelp review swiftly turns into an actual ordeal. Jamie can’t find their hosts, and every door and window is locked, trapping them inside the building. Worse, their keys and phones have gone missing. With Victoria’s labor pains sending them into an increasing panic, the couple desperately look for a way out. Fiona and Barry finally reappear, but it quickly becomes clear they have less than merciful intentions.

Fast-forward a month and a shell-shocked Victoria and Jamie are back in London, without their baby Danny. They’re both trying to get on with life as normal, but are understandably having a difficult go of it. The trauma of losing their child is also causing them to react in different ways. While Jamie reaches out to his wife for solace, Victoria can’t help but push him away despite his loving overtures:

And for a moment I’m tempted, because it’s just so wonderful to be looked after like this. There’s a comfort in spending time with Jamie that I can’t get elsewhere.

 

But I can’t face the prospect of sitting down opposite him, having breakfast, and talking about Danny. About the threats in the post. Because that’s where the conversation will go. Every moment I spend with him is a reminder of what’s happened. It’s exactly why we need to spend time apart.

As a mom who’s had a complicated history of pregnancies myself, I honestly felt overwhelmed at points while reading this novel. Robin Morgan-Bentley writes powerfully about some of the worst terrors expecting parents can face; it seems almost unfair that he also manages some truly inventive mystery novel twists and chills on top of all that.

I was also impressed by Morgan-Bentley’s choice to feature a lead with cerebral palsy. Diversity representation is so important, and he does a terrific job of showcasing the interior life of an expectant father who already has to contend with physical limitations in his everyday existence, even before adding on the nightmare of what happens to him and his little family in that seemingly innocuous guest house.

This was a truly outstanding thriller. I may never be able to read it again because I felt it all just so deeply in my bones, but I won’t ever forget it.

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Comments

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