Closer Still by Richard Farren Barber. Book review

Closer Still by Richard Farren Barber, Black Shuck Books, PB: £7.50, eBook: £1.99

Reviewed by Dave Jeffery

The latest novella from the author of last year’s impressive post-apocalyptic tale, PERFECT DARKNESS, PERFECT SILENCE (reviewed elsewhere on the BFS site) sees a tale of teen angst as 14 year old Rachel is haunted by the ghost of her friend Katie, who was killed in tragic circumstances. At first Katie is merely a projection, an opaque companion who offers guidance, comfort and support as Rachel becomes target of school bullies. There are splashes of intrigue as the nature of Katie’s death is kept hidden from the reader, and these quiet revelations build a picture where we soon understand that all of the girls were once a group of friends and Katie’s death has proven a catalyst for dysfunction and blame.   

As Katie becomes corporeal and able to interact with the material elements of our world, and the intimidation at the hands the antagonists intensifies, the bullies find themselves on the receiving end of a paranormal intervention of the ghoulish and vicious kind. With each attack Katie becomes increasingly malevolent and it is only a matter of time before Rachel’s attempts to protect the bullies from further harm are interpreted as betrayal. And Rachel, too, becomes a potential target.

As with PERFECT DARKNESS, PERFECT SILENCE Barber’s narrative is smooth and readable, revealing key story elements at the right time and building a remarkable sense of tension. The main characters are vibrant, with enough flesh to the bones to draw the reader in and consider their fate with concern. The nuances of growing up are captured well here, and the interplay between the girls is comfortable, witty and authentic.

CLOSER STILL is a morality tale in the guise of a ghost story. If there is a key message then it is that we are all fundamentally alone in times of deep emotion, be that grief or intense hopelessness that are ultimately the by-product of sustained bullying and abuse. This is compounded by the alienation of youth and the trials of growing up in an off-kilter world, and the clever way that Barber portrays Rachel’s not-quite-in-shot parents. The ending is a satisfying blend of redemption and ambiguity that leaves just as many questions as it does answers. Never a bad thing as this helps the book remain in the psyche for some time afterwards.

Once again, Barbers quiet, erudite storytelling has managed to produce a tale that is as insightful as it is evocative. While this does not appear to be a book aimed at Young Adults, it would certainly not be out of place if it was marketed in such a way. As it is, the book is an effective ghost story will enough chills to chill the bones, irrespective of age.

Highly recommended.