Looking Glass Sound by Catriona Ward

April 20, 2023

In a lonely cottage overlooking the windswept Maine coast, Wilder Harlow begins the last book he will ever write. It is the story of his childhood summer companions and the killer that stalked the small New England town. Of the body they found, and the horror of that discovery echoing down the decades. And of Sky, Wilder’s one-time best friend, who stole his unfinished memoir and turned it into a lurid bestselling novel, Looking Glass Sound.

But as Wilder writes, the lines between memory and fiction blur. He fears he’s losing his grip on reality when he finds notes hidden around the cottage written in Sky’s signature green ink.

Catriona Ward’s new novel, Looking Glass Sound, is an exploration of love, loss, and trauma viewed through the eyes of a man revisiting his formative years. 

Even as an adult, the still lurking pent-up frustrations of teenage angst make Wilder Harlow the most unreliable of narrators. His entire life has been shaped by the events during the summers of his youth, and his perspective is skewed at best. It would be easy to pity Wilder, but by turns, he is both the hero and then the villain of the piece. The same can also be said of his friends. Their various actions and reactions are a constant reminder that humans are far from perfect. We’re all capable of doing good, being the sort of people we aspire to be, but we’re also more than capable of being just as bad. It turns out the only thing that makes us different is that some people are better at hiding their flawed tendencies than others. 

You know that brilliant thing that Stephen King does when he writes a couple of pages about a character and you feel like you’ve known them your entire life? Catriona Ward manages the same impressive feat here. Wilder, Harper, Nat and Sky are so well realised, so rounded and human. That painful, jarring move from adolescence to adulthood feels visceral in every scene. When the book’s first major revelation hits no one escapes fallout. It struck me that no one ever really walks away from trauma unscathed. You don’t have any choice but to embrace the outcome of events, accept them and make them part of you. If you can’t do that they will control you from that moment onwards. 

There are going to be many, many different interpretations of this narrative. Different readers will undoubtedly latch on to different themes. Ward is deftly picking apart the human condition. What makes us love, what makes us hate and everything in between. I found myself focusing on the idea of achieving closure and of opportunities missed. That desire to have just one more conversation with the person who you know you will never speak to again. This might sound a trifle morbid but it’s hardly surprising, I finished reading Looking Glass Sound a year to the day that my father passed away. The plot has coalesced a lot of thoughts that have been floating around unbound in my mind for a while now. It’s always fun when there is a flash of cosmic synchronicity and fiction manages to intersect with your own life. I love when fiction like this prompts introspection and demands you engage with the subject matter. 

Hmm, is Looking Glass Sound a horror novel? I’ve been thinking about this a lot and the best response I can give is “Maybe”. There are certainly horrific moments. Wilder’s fragile mental state constantly erodes as the plot unfolds. Are the horrors he is experiencing genuine or the figment of an already damaged psyche? Again, I suspect this is an element of the novel that will be open to interpretation by every reader. If this is horror then it does fall firmly into the psychological category. If nothing else this is a novel about the monster we create for ourselves. 

The plot drifts in and out of its own meta-fiction allowing the author to pull off some nicely timed surprises. In the hands of a less skilled writer this would be a risky approach but Ward pulls it off with aplomb. Flawless multi-layered storytelling like this ensures readers are going to come back to revisit it time and time again.

The New England location is ideal, and the passing of the seasons feels palpable. The languid summer days flow into grey autumn dusk and then the bleak winter nights. I was fortunate a few years ago to travel around Maine, very close to where the book was set, and there is desolate beauty to the coast in the darker times of the year. This dovetails perfectly with the novel’s overall tone.

I’m under no illusions, it’s highly likely that Looking Glass Sound won’t be for everyone. The idea of a book within a book may well put some people off. This is literary Marmite, you’ll either love it or hate it. Personally, my heart was smashed into a million tiny pieces and left in a small pile of dust on the floor. Needless to say, I hung on every word. This is genuinely affecting writing. 

I was reminded of The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough. Looking Glass Sound has that same delicate exploration of humanity and the journey we all take. I’ll no doubt be accused of being a raging sentimentalist* but it’s quite beautiful really. This is one of those novels that you know is going to stay with you. It’s the sort of thing that when I finished I’m driven by the urge to go and find someone else who has also read it so we can spend hours discussing it.  

You’ve probably already noticed this review is a bit all over the place. It’s one of those rambling, mildly incoherent, waffly efforts I post from time to time. I can’t help it. There is so much in this novel to ruminate on. Take it from me, if you were reading the unabridged, spoiler-filled version of this document it would be a whole lot longer and far more waffly. Catronia Ward has clearly made a host of very specific decisions about story structure, pace, and characters. All of this exquisite attention to the smallest details really pays off. I’ve heard great things about Catriona Ward’s other books, I’ve not read any of them so far but based on the experience I’ve had with Looking Glass Sound this is an oversight I need to rectify immediately.

Looking Glass Sound is published by Viper Books and is available now. Go and purchase it now, read it and then me know so we can have a long chat. Highly recommended.

My musical recommendation to accompany Looking Glass Sound is the sublime soundtrack to season one of The Sinner by Ronit Kirchman. It has a haunting, ambient quality that works well as an auditory companion to the novel. 

*Guilty as charged your honour.

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