Sundial by Catriona Ward
Publication Date: March 1st, 2022
Hardcover. 304 pages.
"You can't escape what's in your blood...
All Rob wanted was a normal life. She almost got it, too: a husband, two kids, a nice house in the suburbs. But Rob fears for her oldest daughter, Callie, who collects tiny bones and whispers to imaginary friends. Rob sees a darkness in Callie, one that reminds her too much of the family she left behind.
She decides to take Callie back to her childhood home, to Sundial, deep in the Mojave Desert. And there she will have to make a terrible choice.
Callie is worried about her mother. Rob has begun to look at her strangely, and speaks of past secrets. And Callie fears that only one of them will leave Sundial alive…
The mother and daughter embark on a dark, desert journey to the past in the hopes of redeeming their future."
Sundial is Catriona Ward’s latest psychological horror after publishing The Last House on Needless Street last fall (which I loved!), and it certainly does not disappoint.
Before diving into this review, I’d like to point out some content warnings for this book, including, but not limited to: child, spousal, and general familial abuse, animal cruelty, and general difficult subject matters. I was particularly bothered by the animal cruelty that largely affected dogs, so do be aware of that if it’s something that might bother you as well. This is definitely a tough read at times, but it’s one that I found equally riveting and left me constantly wondering what would happen to this odd array of characters.
Sundial follows Rob, a mother of two who has a somewhat buried past that has been haunting her in the years since attempting to leave it all behind. Her past becomes more and more pressing in her mind as her eldest daughter, Callie, begins to demonstrate some disturbing problems and tendencies that leave Rob feeling helpless and worried for her already somewhat fractured family. She decides to take Callie to Sundial, her family home in the Mojave Desert, in order to attempt to help them both get to the bottom of their problems before anything worse happens. I won’t say too much more in regards to the plot because I feel the less you know about Sundial, the more enjoyable the reading experience will be.
This story switches between two main timelines, that of the present day with Rob and her family, and that of Rob’s past growing up at Sundial with her tangled, unusual family. We also get occasional chapters featuring excerpts from a story called Arrowwood that Rob writes as a way, it seems, to come to grips with her past and express herself. I’ve a seen a few reviews questioning the purpose of these chapters, and I have to say that I agree in not entirely seeing them as a necessary component to this story. They were intriguing at first, but soon lost much impact and interest from me.
Sundial is filled with characters who are not very likable and all seem to be struggling with something dark and disturbing. It’s difficult sometimes to really get into a book when there’s not really one character whose side you want to be on, but I felt that Ward did a good job of creating a compelling enough story to keep me wanting to find out how everything was going to work out for each of these characters. I was particularly frustrated by the relationship dynamic between Rob and her sister, Jack, which felt compulsive and dramatic, but fit well with the unorthodox manner in which they were raised that likely would have left them with not altogether healthy relationships.
Ward’s writing is purposeful and expressive and does not shy away from making readers experience things as viscerally as her characters do. The atmosphere is eerie and dark, and the background of the Mojave Desert is the perfect backdrop for the events of this novel to unfold. I struggled to get through this one for some reason, and I think it’s because the pacing felt rather slow throughout most of the story, especially in the present day timeline once Rob and Callie reached Sundial. I understand this section was largely about Rob sharing her story with Callie and the readers, but it made the story drag a bit and I think made it a little bit of a slog through some of the more repetitive moments. Still, Ward’s prose is sharp and compulsive enough to keep me captivated by these messed up characters and even more messed up plot.
Overall, I’ve given Sundial four stars. I debated a bit on somewhere between 3-4 stars, but in the end I think I was intrigued and captivated enough by this story to warrant a 4 star rating. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys psychological horror, but do keep in mind the content warnings mentioned above and go into this knowing that it will not hold your hand through the difficult moments.
*I received a copy of Sundial courtesy of the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*