Dominic Brownlow’s evocative yet unsettling debut novel The Naseby Horses opens with a teenager returning home only to discover that his sister has been missing since the very same day he was admitted to hospital.
Seventeen-year-old Simon’s sister Charlotte is missing. The lonely Fenland village the family recently moved to from London is odd, silent, and mysterious. Simon is epileptic and his seizures are increasing in severity, but when he is told of the local curse of the Naseby Horses, he is convinced it has something to do with Charlotte’s disappearance. Despite resistance from the villagers, the police, and his own family, Simon is determined to uncover the truth, and save his sister.
Under the oppressive Fenland skies and in the heat of a relentless June, Simon’s bond with Charlotte is fierce, all-consuming, and unbreakable; but can he find her? And does she even want to be found?
While the novel purports to cover the six-day period since Charlotte’s disappearance, Dominic Brownlow cleverly decides to truncate this still further to only three, with the book beginning on the day that Simon returns home. This ensures that Simon and the reader come to the story at the same time, knowing about as much as each other; both have to play catch up, and any confusion on the part of the reader as to what might be happening is only mirrored and even amplified by Simon’s own.
An unreliable narrator he may be but Simon decides it’s down to him to find out what’s going on: “I don’t know what’s going on here and I don’t know the answers to these things, for I don’t even know if they are even things, not merely the shadows of things. I only know that Charlotte is not dead. I feel it within me. I feel her heartbeat next to mine, as I always have, the echo of my own… I have to save her, for that is all in life I have ever been required to do.”
Simon’s resolution will single him out even more in the small Fenland village to which his family only recently retreated from London and make him a target for unwelcome attention. But it’s also a search that takes him through a killer inventory of mystery elements, including his own family’s books and papers; a disurbing painting they inherited with the house; letters from the dead; time spent unravelling the truth behind a local legend that comes with its own curse dating back to the time of the English Civil War; and a list sharing one spooky commonality.
To further complicate things, Simon is taking medication and trying to avoid any more epileptic episodes. The description of the aura experienced shortly before the onset of an episode is wonderfully well done but this different way in which his brain fires and makes connections might be the very thing which also helps him to see the things that no one else can.
Despite being set under wide open Fenland skies, The Naseby Horses often feels claustrophobic and slightly menacing: the village is described “as though a slowly waking demon lies concealed among its shapes and shadows… At any moment now, it could unwind itself, stretching its malevolent form across the sky and consume everything beneath it.”
I particularly enjoyed the variety of birds used in this book, which ties in with Simon’s young ornithologist leanings, together with the significance attached to them. Simon associates the swan with his missing sister, Charlotte, while the corvids crowding the rooftops reinforce how Simon feels about being watched and how it’s every bit as unnerving as when the villagers stand and stare on the street.
Then there are the thatched talismans: “Like remoras attached to the silhouette of the village, the thatched birds on the roofs of the cottages perch expectantly in the fading light, through which, far out across the fields, long nocturnal smudges of oily grey light are slowly beginning to dissipate.”
The Naseby Horses is an atmospheric slow-burner of a mystery within a mystery, totally at home in its superbly-evoked Fenland setting, with the author building the tension every bit as well as the convincing auras he creates. Dominic Brownlow’s book was as much a feast for the senses as a test of my nerves; he had me smelling lavender and the far less-fragrant sulphur, pausing to look with Simon at all the diverse bird life and even listening out for a spot of late-night bell-ringing. I longed for a feather talisman to wield as I read this singular story of a brother ‘s close bond with his sister.
The Naseby Horses by Dominic Brownlow is published in hardcover and ebook formats by Louise Walters Books tomorrow with the paperback due out in June 2020. You can buy it direct from the publisher here or find it at Amazon UK. The exceptional cover design is by Jenny Rawlings at Serifim.
Dominic Brownlow lived in London and worked in the music industry as a manager before setting up his own independent label. He now enjoys life in the Fens and has an office that looks out over water. The Naseby Horses is his first novel. It was long listed for the Bath Novel Award 2016. You can find him on Twitter.