Review of Home Before Dark by Riley Sager
Updated: Aug 17, 2020
A compelling Gothic suspense story with supernatural elements that keeps you guessing.
Eeeee! Haunted house alert! I admit to feeling the need to read this suspense novel primarily during daylight, especially as the situation began to unfold in its haunting, slow build. (Eventually I just had to brace myself with reminders that I am a grown woman capable of reading a spooky novel when it is dark outside. Ahem!)
Sager has crafted a compelling Gothic suspense story in which we're along for the ride as Maggie, a young interior designer, returns to the childhood home where terrifying events exploded and led to her family's middle-of-the-night fleeing, never to return--until now. Maggie struggles to establish what is and was real and what might be imagined, tries to piece together who knows more than they're admitting about past tragedies and unexplained occurrences, debates whether any of her parents' accounts hold merit, and begins to wonder with horror whether she can trust even her own memories.
The structure of Home Before Dark was intriguing--a book within a book within a book. That kind of setup could feel forced, but for me it felt fluid and allowed for valuable layering and points of view.
I loved how Sager managed to keep me wondering who/what/when without making me feel manipulated by misleading details or bogged down by red herrings, and that he struck what was for me a perfectly eerie tone. I gleefully questioned whether any character was telling the truth--including, ultimately, whether the main protagonist was herself a reliable narrator. I was kept guessing throughout, yet all the pieces eventually fit (without any eye rolls necessary about aspects unaccounted for at the end).
At a few points I did want to yell at Maggie, "Just leave! Who cares about figuring out what happened?" But luckily for the arc of the story, Sager does a good job of providing her with a stubborn grip on what she sees as truth over fantasy and a dismissive disbelief in ghosts that allow her to stick it out.
A minor niggling issue: I didn't feel as though the character of Jess in modern day in any way resembled the Jess of the earlier account of events, to the point that the disconnect made me stop a few times with a "Wait, who is this?" confusion. People change, but for me her dramatic change from practical, protective, sometimes put-upon wife, mother , and teacher (although we never see her head to work or hear another word about her career, presumably because events at their new home unfold so quickly?) didn't fit with the present-day fabulously wealthy, globetrotting snob--without a little more explanation, at least. Having Jess gone and unreachable helps the story progress, but still.
I really liked Sager's pacing and his smart laying out of the story elements in a not-melodramatic way--allowing me to bring my own dramatic reactions.
I received a prepublication copy of this book from Penguin Group Dutton and NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.
What did you think?
Have you read any Riley Sager books--or other spooky books lately? Sager has published several other books, none of which I've read yet.
I've heard this one compared to The Haunting of Hill House, but I haven't read that one (or watched the TV series).
I have self-imposed limits on skeery book reading in order to preserve my peaceful slumber, so I like to choose them carefully. Eerie books are great escapism, though--for example, during a PANDEMIC.