It makes perfect sense that Sarah Gailey would follow up her brilliant book, The Echo Wife (which I not only persuaded the Field Notes Book Group to read but have pushed into the hands of lots of people as a wonderful read), with something very different. Her newest book, Just Like Home, is every bit as enthralling and creepy (if not more creepy, at least on the surface) as The Echo Wife, but instead of taking us into a near future where cloning of humans is possible, it sets us in the present, as a young woman goes back, for the first time in years, to the family home where her mother is dying, and where her father tortured and killed several people years earlier.
This is the kind of book where the main character, in the first chapter, can wonder about something she buried under the front steps and my first thought was that it was either a body or a body part. It is, in fact, the kind of book that I devour like candy, and I read it in a day because I really couldn’t put it down.
Vera has a complicated relationship with her mother, who is dying from some unspecified but clearly draining disease (which looks like some kind of late stage cancer). She also has a complicated relationship with her late father, who died of pneumonia in prison some years ago. Her mother, who called her home, has set up her bed in what used to be the dining room, a room which seems always shrouded in a semi-darkness no matter what the light conditions outside are. We learn right away that Vera’s mother threw her out of the house when Vera was 17 (eventually we will learn the reasons for it), and that Vera dreads her mother’s anger and hatefulness, and in the first encounter between Vera and her dying mother, the latter tells her to stop referring to her as “mother.” Talk about unresolved issues!
Vera’s father, Francis, built the house himself, and his presence pervades it. Vera misses him terribly, and feels guilty for having had no contact with him between his arrest and his death. Gradually, oh so gradually, we get flashbacks where we see what Vera knew about her father and when she knew it. She is not an uncomplicated character herself (nor did I expect anything less from Gailey).
To make this sojourn more awkward still, Vera’s mother has been making ends meet by renting out the shed on the property to people who are still fascinated by what Francis did, artists and mediums and true crime savants, and the more significant parts of the house itself (the basement, for instance) are preserved as if it were a museum in which Francis’ widow just happens to live. The man living on the property now is a creepy artist, the son of an author whose True Crime book about Francis made the writer rich, made his reputation, and, in so doing, destroyed not only the Crowder family’s reputation but also any possibility that Vera Crowder could ever live a normal life. She carries a not unreasonable grudge against the father, but his artist son, James, is thoroughly hateful and creepy in his own way.
The past will not rest. Vera starts finding bits of her father’s writings about her in unusual places, pages obviously cut from his missing journal, though James denies doing anything of the sort and Vera’s mother couldn’t physically do it. Things move around in her room, and she hears noises that couldn’t have come from anything in the house. Is it James or is there something worse going on?
This is a haunted house story par excellence. The house itself is kind of strange, and Vera’s experiences are classic hauntings (with the ever present question of whether she’s hallucinating or the victim of a vicious interloper who wants the house himself lurking in the background). Gailey builds suspense in multiple directions: what’s going on with the house? What’s James’ real agenda? What did Francis actually do? Why is Vera’s mother so angry with her so often and yet occasionally tender towards her?
But it’s more than a haunted house story (even as it ticks off all the boxes that make a great one). The heart of the book is Vera and her relationship with her parents, especially her father. Vera’s memories give us an unusual look at a person who was, quite frankly, seriously mentally ill, but who also clearly loved her. He’s not your typical serial killer, if there is such a thing, and Vera’s love for him and guilt about her role in his arrest have made her who she is today (that’s not necessarily a good thing).
There’s some gore in the book, but for a novel about the daughter of a serial killer, I found it less violent and gross than most of Jo Nesbo’s works. It’s very suspenseful and unsettling; everything makes sense in the end (a horrible kind of sense), and it’s a hell of a ride. If you liked The Echo Wife, you’ll like this. If you like a good haunted house story, or a good psychological thriller, you’ll like this. If you like really well written horror, what are you waiting for? Put this one on your To Be Read list immediately!