Sundial by Catriona Ward

This unnerving novel of family history and impossible choices is part ghost story, part terrifying reality.

Catriona Ward (The Last House on Needless Street) places mundane, everyday frustrations alongside profound chills in a novel of family, tough choices, secrets and terror. “It’s the chicken pox that makes me sure–my husband is having another affair.” At the beginning of Sundial, readers wonder what feels just a little off about the suburban household where Rob and her husband, Irving, bicker and feud and raise their two daughters, Callie and Annie. Irving has a nasty temper; Rob is bitterly frustrated: “These days I don’t understand why anyone bothers to watch soap operas or go to movies. Living is enough. It is so intense and painful.” Annie is a sweet, docile child; Callie has a discomfiting fascination with murder and death. When the bones of small mammals begin to show up in Callie’s room, Rob feels that things have gone far enough, and takes her elder daughter away for a spell–to Sundial, Rob’s family home in California’s Mojave desert, an abandoned hippie commune and site of terrible unnamed wrongs.

Through flashback-style stories Rob tells Callie, readers learn of Rob’s past: she had a twin sister named Jack, and the sisters shared an unusual upbringing, surrounded by half-wild dogs, scientific experiments, wayward graduate students and shadowy, evil acts. Something dark lived or lives in Rob, or Jack, or Callie, or possibly all of them, and it gradually dawns on readers that Rob is mulling the unthinkable choice to save one daughter or the other. Her secrets come out only slowly and in fits and starts, and it’s often unclear what is imagined, what is paranormal and what is plain human malice. “It’s possible to feel the horror of something and to accept it all at the same time. How else could we cope with being alive?” The novel’s perspective shifts between Rob then, Rob now and Callie, so a character may appear innocent in one chapter and dangerous in the next. At least one of these narrators is surely unreliable, but it takes until the final pages to piece together the unsettling enigma of Rob’s family history and the possible futures for her girls.

With the special horror of creepy children and the very real torture of abusive adults, Sundial serves up a deeply, deliciously disturbing family mystery, populated by ghost dogs and misguided scientists as well as apparently nonthreatening neighbors. A slow burn leads into a quick ratcheting up as this psychological horror deals its final blows.


This review originally ran in the January 6, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 cinnamon candies.

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