Family Business by Jonathan Sims

October 21, 2022



When Diya Burman’s best friend Angie dies, it feels like her own life is falling apart. Wanting a fresh start, she joins Slough & Sons – a family firm that cleans up after the recently deceased.

Old love letters. Porcelain dolls. Broken trinkets. Clearing away the remnants of other people’s lives, Diya begins to see things. Horrible things. Things that get harder and harder to write off as merely her grieving imagination. All is not as it seems with the Slough family. Why won’t they speak about their own recent loss? And who is the strange man that keeps turning up at their jobs?

If Diya’s not careful, she might just end up getting buried under the family tree. . .

Way back in 2020, I read an excellent anthology by Jonathan Sims called 13 Storeys. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Everyone loves a haunted house don’t they? Two years down the line and the author is back with a new novel, Family Business.

The sadness that inhabits the main protagonist, Diya, feels palpable. The death of her best friend means she has lost one of the few constants in her life. She has been adrift in her own existence and it’s only the prospect of financial stability that finds her tidying up after the dead.

The majority of Slough & Sons’ clients are those who existed on the periphery of society. Frank Slough, the family patriarch puts it simply; heartbreaking suicides, troubled addicts or lonely shut-ins with no family to care for are all entitled to the same respect as those of us who are loved. It’s an admirable sentiment, and Frank appears to be a stand-up guy, but perhaps there is something just a little bit off about him.

Frank’s daughters, the Sons having been from generations long passed, couldn’t be more different from their father. Xen is brash and outgoing, while Mary is a thoughtful spirit. Diya feels like she has met some kindred souls. Maybe cleaning up after the dead won’t be so bad after all. Almost as soon as that realisation occurs, that’s the moment the nightmarish visions begin.

One of the things I loved about 13 Storeys, and again in Family Business, is the characterisation. The author takes time to flesh out his creations. The arguments that sometimes explode between Frank and his children have a raw, visceral edge. There is real venom in one moment and then sulky indifference the next. Exactly the sort of thing that is often seen in a real family.

The supernatural elements in the story start off really slowly and build with each passing chapter. Initially, Diya believes her visions are due to her fragile mental state. There is that niggling persistent doubt, perhaps it is all in her mind. As events start to pick up pace it becomes evident, however, that there is something far more insidious going on.

The other area where this novel excels is the depth of thought that has gone into what could be quite triggering subject matter. Death is front and centre in Family Business. Sims uses a delicate touch, weaving insightful, reflective moments throughout the narrative.

We do not disappear after death. Small pieces of our being can remain, persisting in those places that were once so meaningful to us.*

I love writing like this. Subtly wrapped up in a horror novel, there is an exploration of the human condition. Death is something we are taught to shy away from, and not talk about. Maybe it wouldn’t be quite so scary if we talked about it a little more. Every action and reaction we create in our lives send ripples out into the world. We all leave our mark, every one of us. What if there was something that fed on that? Something that erased us from memory. I’ve heard it said that nobody really dies as long as someone remembers them. Family Business explores what happens when we are forgotten.

For years now, I’ve found that the horror stories that stay with me longest are those that feature ordinary people trapped in extraordinary circumstances. Diya, Xen, Mary and Frank are trying to live their respective lives, just the same as the rest of us. They find themselves part of an increasingly disturbing situation with no obvious means of escape. Who is the mysterious Mr Bill, and why is he so keen to keep Slough and Sons in business?

Family Business is published by Gollancz and is available now. Highly recommended.

My musical recommendation to accompany this novel is the soundtrack to The Invitation by Dara Taylor. It has an unsettling, creepy vibe that perfectly fits this story’s tone.

*That gem is from page one, and I’ll admit it does form the basis for some gallows humour but it is insightful nonetheless.


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