By RS Anthony
Malaysian author RS Anthony breaks a lot of rules. First, most experts will say that authors should write what they know. Halversham, her second novel, will make a reader awe at her grasp of the sights, sounds, scenes and population of the British countryside. A brief bio says the writer travels quite a bit, yet readers will wonder how she can so graphically sketch the environs of the habitat and not live there. Second, writers say, “never tease the reader.” Anthony drops revelatory crumbs of mysteries in this story as tantalizing as the muffins of the main character’s aunt to draw readers into a series of secrets the boy can’t wait to solve.
Andrew J. Monaghan, an American, 16-year-old with daddy issues, is an unlikely hero. He is a typical teen with the requisite outrage and anger only someone raised in privilege can afford. The comparatively slow, two-year decline toward death of his mother Patricia shoves the bright kid into an emotional black hole, and he figures that a bid to recapture the warm feelings and memories in a place where he and she spent their happiest days is his only means of escape. His dad Paul, a driven, desperate tycoon trapped in his own struggle with loss, realizes that the boy might be best off with a month in the family’s erstwhile country home in a village called Halversham.
As readers quickly discover, the name of the place is prettier and more polished than its residents’ deeds. Anthony’s tightly written prose and descriptions make readers feel as if they are walking the streets and sampling the cuisine. The baked goods and meals are so vivid at times, I felt I could taste them. Worse, I was peeved by the realization that I could not. Similar feelings of contradiction arose toward the key characters.
I wanted to know many people in the story – Andy’s Aunt Magda, his cousin Corinne, the reviled and reclusive Mr. Milton, and the Doynes. Anthony’s skills at characterization are so sharp that I felt an acquaintance with most of them through the protagonist’s eyes and thoughts. That said, the more I was exposed to those people, the more emotion they drew from me. I was certain that if the encounters were real, the pleasure will not be mine.
I won’t give too many specifics about the plot to encourage YA readers to sample Halversham’s 163 pages. Readers will be pulled to the edge of their seats as they watch how far Andy will go to find out the answers to the questions he discovers. At the same time, they will be tempted to wonder whether or how they might do the same. They will savor this taste of small town mystery like a slip of 90-percent-pure dark chocolate. The story is filled with disappearances and killings of people and animals, mysterious happenings that drag the main character and readers through a dark, dark place to a new light.
The tightly woven narrative shows that Anthony’s mastery of the ability to build suspense through the manipulation of readers’ perspectives. At every turn, none of the key characters is as they first appear. Likewise, readers discover through Andy Monaghan’s unfailing efforts to answer the questions that contradict his idyllic memories of Halversham, they are in a place he never really knew.
In the end, readers will find satisfaction with what Anthony offers, yet hunger for more. I know that sounds cliche, but it it clear even the author plans that to be the case. That is likely why Anthony places an invite for readers to sample her 2006 novel, Pork, on the final ten pages of the 173-page ebook.