Book Review: We Spread by Iain Reid

At once compassionate and uncanny, told in spare, hypnotic prose, Iain Reid’s genre-defying third novel explores questions of conformity, art, productivity, relationships, and what, ultimately, it means to grow old. Read on for Doreen Sheridan's review!

After the death of her long-term partner, Penny is all alone in the world. She continues living in the apartment they once shared, her world shrinking smaller and smaller with the perhaps inevitable loss of her mobility as she ages. When she has a fall one day, her landlord Mike sets into motion a plan he assures her that she and her late partner had agreed upon long ago.

Penny has no recollection of arranging to move to Six Cedars, a secluded long-term care facility surrounded by cliff and forest. The staff seems to consist of only two people, confident Shelley and the more furtive Jack. To Penny’s surprise, there are only three other residents. She finds herself drawn to the dapper mathematician Hilbert, even as she finds linguist Ruth far too familiar. And Pete…well, Pete only rouses from his seeming catatonia in order to eat or play the violin, which doesn’t really lend itself to forming meaningful new relationships.

While Penny is disoriented by the move, she does welcome having company again. It’s especially refreshing for her to be surrounded by people who see her as more than the helpmate and shadow of the charismatic artist she’d spent her life with. Soon, she’s inspired to take up painting again herself, finding an unexpected late-in-life contentment. 

But then strange things start happening to her. Everyone at Six Cedars feels a little too intimate, both with her and with each other, and Shelley’s preoccupation with biology soon begins to feel sinister. Unnerved, Penny asks Jack:

“But why am I hearing noises I’ve never heard before?”

 

“Because you were alone before.”

 

“And now?” I ask.

 

“And now we live here together. The headphones will help. That’s exactly what they’re for. You’ll be able to paint and focus for as long as you want.”

 

“Those headphones will help with how I feel?”

 

“They’ll help with the sounds you’re hearing. It’s an old house. Thin walls. It took you a long time to get used to the creaky floors, too, Penny.”

 

A long time? I just got here.

With time slipping away from her, Penny’s fear and paranoia begin to escalate as she wonders if something nefarious is being done to loosen her grip on reality. Shelley and Jack are quick to reassure her that everything is fine, but look to be at odds themselves. As the terror of losing both her freedom and her sanity descend, Penny must search for allies and a way out of the nightmare that’s slowly taking over what’s left of her life.

The most poignant part of this psychological thriller, that also serves as a powerful metaphor for aging, is how cognizant Penny is of what she’s losing even as she’s fighting so hard against what seems to be inevitable. Contemporary mystery novels are (awesomely) filled with spry elderly characters solving crimes and dispensing acerbic advice; rarer are the books written from the viewpoint of elderly victims trying to keep coherent their unraveling senses of identity. What’s worse for Penny is that Six Cedars felt like a second chance for her. Even before she arrived, she had looked back on her life – one in which she essentially sacrificed her own career and feelings for that of her partner’s – with regret:

It’s sad how I live. Isn’t clarity supposed to come with age and experience? If I had more time, I could make changes. I could learn more. I could work more, paint more. Knowing I could have been a better, more accomplished painter, but now it’s too late. It all comes down to not having enough time. I wish I could go back.

Six Cedars does initially offer Penny the time and space she needs to pursue her own passions again. But as the days go by, her desires begin to commingle with her reality in a pressure cooker of anxiety that Iain Reid deftly and heartbreakingly conveys with spare prose that both welcomes and rewards re-reading.

We Spread is beautifully written, with a haunting tension that leads to its ambivalent ending. It treads into speculative fiction territory the further Penny stumbles through the nightmare of Six Cedars, but never quite commits to being anything besides a moving, often terrifying meditation on what it means to age.

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