The Doll House – Phoebe Morgan (Review)

5168zmN6fdLCorinne is fragile. Her father’s death hit her hard, and repeated attempts to get pregnant have trapped her in a cycle of tentative hope followed by crushing disappointment. Sometimes the world is all too much to cope with.

When strange things start happening, no one really takes her seriously. She’s just highly-strung, over-anxious. Little worrying signs that Corinne sees as part of a larger, menacing pattern seem like coincidence to everyone else.

Is Corinne being stalked by someone unknown and malevolent, or is her mind creating monsters out of nothing?

I’m not a huge fan of synopses that end in a question, but it’s the only thing that works here – The Doll House‘s central conflict is more about perception than anything else, and the driver of the first half of the novel is Corinne’s (and to a lesser extent, her sister Ashley’s) struggle with their fears and anxieties.

The Doll House doesn’t have a single focus. The first part of the novel is genre-less, focused on exploring emotions and perceptions rather than plot. Later, it shifts to become a psychological thriller, as the threats move from internal to external. At the end, The Doll House is an action thriller, with screeching sirens and races against time.

This lack of focus weakens the novel, giving it a mis-matched set-up and pay-off. If you’re bored by the slow, cautious start, then you won’t persevere until the more action-heavy ending; if you’re absorbed by the psychological shades-of-grey parts, then the ending falls flat. To my mind, the better sections are earlier on, with the portrayal of possible madness.

As an exploration of anxiety and paranoia, The Doll House is very good. Both Corinne and Ashley are filled with self-doubt and confusion, focusing and fixating on things that everyone is able to let go off. The early stages of the novel are sweet and sad, with convincing prose that makes the main characters easy to identify with. Anxiety is a difficult thing to portray in fiction – major emotional weight on externally minor things comes across as crass or overblown unless it’s very carefully handled. The Doll House pulls the trick off well.

The plot is overly complex, with layers and layers of subterfuge that don’t add as much as they need to justify themselves. It keeps you guessing right up to the big reveal, but a simpler plot would have served the themes just as well. Amongst the madness and the stalking, there’s a lot about architecture, journalism and other things that are relevant, but slow down the story and obscure the key emotions/ideas.

The Doll House is not a happy book, and it’s not exactly fun to read, but it deals with important ideas sensitively. The lack of focus does weaken the book, but the central idea, exploring fear and shifting perceptions, is one that I think should more of a topic in fiction, and it’s one that The Doll House deals with well.
Buy it here.

In the interests of fairness, I should note that I was sent a copy of The Doll House through NetGalley.

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