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You Let Me In by Camilla BruceUK edition3 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from Powells“Is it really happening? Or is it all in her mind?” This is such an old trope in suspense fiction that by now it’s probably collecting Social Security. But Camilla Bruce, in her debut novel You Let Me In, displays impressive skill in using this trope in the service of a psychological fantasy about how narrative shapes memory and helps — or perhaps doesn’t — to manage personal trauma.

The inclusion of elements of dark fantasy sets the book apart from a mainstream thriller, and in fact, these elements are so central to the story that You Let Me In may be better enjoyed by fans of Caitlin Kiernan or Charles de Lint, rather than Tana French or Ruth Ware. It doesn’t have a conventional thriller’s thrills, mainly because Camille Bruce doesn’t want to impose an interpretation of events on us. But her storytelling choices do lead us towards perhaps the most unfavorable conclusions about Cassie we’re prepared to make. We might pity Cassie, but we aren’t given much reason to like her or absolve her.

We open with a news article explaining the mysterious disappearance of the popular and somewhat notorious romance writer Cassandra Tipp; notorious, because her past is shadowed by the suspicious deaths of her husband, brother and father. She was a suspect in her husband’s death, but acquitted, and the trial actually launched her writing career. Cassie’s will instructs her executors to have her declared legally dead if she goes missing for over a year, and she leaves her estate to her niece and nephew — provided, of course, that they read a manuscript left among Cassie’s personal effects that contains a code word that will validate their claim to her estate. (Isn’t that just like a writer?)

The rest of the novel is this manuscript. Cassie starts by addressing her heirs personally before settling into the story proper, but the shift from second to first person isn’t nearly as jarring as it could have been. We learn of Cassie’s upbringing under a stern father, a contemptuous queen bee of a sister, and a mother so hateful she comes across like Joan Crawford playing Cruella de Ville. There are hints of absolutely horrific abuse, although nothing is depicted explicitly, and in the context of Cassie’s narrative, it makes sense that she might have sublimated the worst memories and possibly channeled them into an elaborate fantasy life to dull their impact.

Because Cassie’s only true friends as a child, you see, are the faerie creatures who live in the nearby wood. Her constant companion is the Pepper-Man, a being who promises her devotion while feeding on her blood every night. As she says, “I fell asleep with his teeth in my throat more often than not,” which could describe the nocturnal habits of a supernatural faerie king or something else entirely. And this is when she’s only nine. Dark hints about what might really be going on percolate just under the surface, in little details like the way Cassie is constantly acting out, throwing tantrums, alienating all her schoolmates and driving her mother to desperation. What exactly is she responding to? The implications are chilling.

The novel gives us two versions of Cassie’s life story that we are meant to judge for ourselves. The first, of course, is Cassie’s own narrative, in which Pepper-Man’s reality, as well as that of the other fae who live deep in the woods with him, is a given. Pepper-Man is a constant companion to Cassie from childhood into her senior years, and he is her ally and true love when everyone else abandons or betrays or mistreats her, at one point even taking the place of Cassie’s husband under circumstances I won’t go into here.

The other version belongs to Cassie’s therapist, Dr. Martin, who wrote his own bestselling book about his treatment of Cassie (which sounds a little ethically dubious to me). Dr. Martin describes Cassie’s belief in her fae companions as “trauma-induced psychosis,” the construction of an elaborate personal fantasy to help her deal with a young life full of unimaginable horrors. Cassie, as she grows older, comes across as emotionally detached and indifferent to everyone. She blandly accepts that Dr. Martin’s book was therapy… for him. She doesn’t worry about anyone else’s opinion of her. But this calm acceptance does not befit her daughter Mara, a creature of the fae herself, and Mara is all too ready to pursue a vengeful path.

Even though we’re ostensibly meant to draw our own conclusions, it’s not hard to look at all the context and understand what’s really going on here. Are the fae real, or is Cassie just a crazy lady who projects her own dark deeds onto figments of her imagination? Camille Bruce wants this to be something to ponder, to leave us sitting up at night scratching our heads. But it seems a bit obvious to me, particularly in the telling details, such as how Cassie’s supernatural friends really do go away when she dutifully stays on her meds. Because of this, the story loses tension and doesn’t quite achieve all of its psychological-suspense goals. But it is a very absorbing character portrayal, even if the character isn’t as complex as we’re supposed to think. And Bruce’s prose is very lovely, which is a nice little indulgence writers are allowed when they’re writing about writers.