I was very impressed with what Simone St. James did with this book. She’s written something that manages to be thought/anger-provoking, is driven by strong female characters and delivers a thriller/supernatural mystery that is tense and exciting.
The rhythm of the story is set by switching the narrative between two timelines, thirty-five years apart, but with the action in both taking place in the Sun Down Motel, at the edge of the small town of Fell, New York. The 1982 timeline is told from the point of view of Viv Delaney, a twenty-something woman who takes a casual job in a strange town to fund her travel to New York and finds herself entangled in something strange. The 2017 timeline is told from the point of view of Viv Delaney’s niece, also twenty-something, who has taken a job at the motel to investigate her aunt’s disappearance.
The two women differ in their attitudes, their motivation and the level of risk they’re willing to take. They are linked by Viv’s disappearance. Knowing Viv will disappear but not knowing why or how is a major driver of the tension in the book.
In both timelines, all the main characters are women. The men are almost all either threats or obstacles. Viv and Carly both find their perceptions altered by working the nightshift at the Sun Down Motel. I loved the descriptions of the detachment from reality that comes from working nights. I recognise that feeling of being surrounded by the world but not being in it because the rhythm of your life is different. Here’s a description of the impact on Viv who is away from home for the first time:
‘Night people were not the same as day people. The good people of Fell, whoever they were, were sound asleep at three A.M. Those people never saw the people Viv saw: the cheating couples having affairs, the truckers strung out on whatever they took to stay awake, the women with blackened eyes who checked out at five A.M. to futilely go home again. These weren’t people suburban Viv Delaney would ever have seen in a hundred years. They weren’t people she would ever have talked to. There was an edge to them. A hard collision with life that she hadn’t known was possible in her soft cocoon. It wasn’t romantic but something about it fascinated her. She didn’t want to look away.’
The ‘didn’t want to look away’ statement turns out to be key to understanding Viv’s character and the intent of the book.
I started off preferring Carly’s segments because I found them harder to classify. They had menace but I didn’t know what the menace was. Viv seemed more like a character in Steven King’s Castle Rock. By the half-way point that had changed. Viv had become a force: clever, brave, increasingly angry, a combatant with empathy for the losses suffered by others. Carly remained an amateur sleuth, too convinced of her own safety, too distant from the people around her. Viv was a warrior powered by rage. Carly was a true-crime buff driven by curiosity.
‘The Sun Down Motel’ is original enough to be hard to classify. It’s not a ghost story. It is a thriller with ghosts in it but its essence is something different. For me, the heart of this story isn’t about seeing ghosts but about seeing the violence that men do to women and refusing to look away. It’s a book that is powered by rage at how we accept the murder of women, how we try to attribute the violence done to them to some flaw in their character or something inappropriate in their behaviour or simply a failure to be ‘sensible’.
In the same way that this is a story with ghosts in it but is not a ghost story, this is a story with a serial killer in it but it’s not a serial-killer story. This a book that deals with a man who hunts and kills women and gets away with it. It’s not the get-inside-the-complex-mind-of-the-killer fall-in-love-with-Hannibal-Lector kind of serial killer book, that glamourises the serial killer and works off the premise that to catch the killer, you have to become him. Simone St. James keeps the focus on the women who were killed. They are always named. The life that was taken away from them is always shown. The indifference of the world to catching men who kill women is a thread that connects the two timelines.
This is a book where the violence of the men and their sense of entitlement to that violence, is damning not just because of what the men do but because it’s taken for granted. A man killing women, while not being seen as acceptable, is not unexpected. A man threatening and hurting a woman is seen as so commonplace that it’s not worth reporting. This institutionalised blindness isn’t specific to 1982, it continues today. In the UK. three women a week are killed by their male partners yet there is no special initiative to deal with this. This kind of institutionalised blindness isn’t achieved through poor eyesight. It can only be sustained by persistently looking away.
In my view, ‘The Sun Down Motel’ is a story about what happens when women refuse to look away; when they listen to each other; when they hold the men accountable. I think this is why all the main actors in the story are women. They don’t need to get into the mind of the serial killer; they need to get into the minds of the women who were killed. The first indication of this is the conversation between Viv and a woman PI were they talk about how an attack on a woman called Bettie made the women of Fell afraid. The Pi says:
‘Because we were all Bettie, for a few weeks at least, y’know?’
Viv’s reaction is key:
Viv swallowed and nodded. ‘We’re all still Betty,’ she said. ‘At least I am.’
Later, after Viv finds out more about what has been going on, she finds herself speaking into silence on a phone at the motel in the middle of the night, wondering if she’s talking to the spirit of a dead woman. She says:
‘I’m so sorry. I don’t think anyone has been as sorry for you as I am. I looked at your picture and you could be me. You could be any of us. You didn’t deserve it. None of us do. It’s wrong. I don’t know what else to do except try to make it right.’
I don’t want to give the plot away. The book has a couple of good twists in it. They’re the kind you almost see coming but don’t really and which then change your whole understanding of the story. I thought all of that was handled skillfully.
I was less pleased with the ending. Its content seemed a little mismatched to the tone of the rest of the book. It was less stark and less daring. Still, I wasn’t the one writing the book and this ending definitely worked.
I strongly recommend the audiobook version of ‘The Sun Down Motel’. Kirsten Potter and Brittany Pressley take a timeline each and both of them do an excellent job. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.