CW: Self-harm, suicidal ideation, abortion
It’s difficult to review a book that is so, so good, but you don’t want to reveal too much for fear of ruining it for others. The Guest List is one of those books; it’s a thriller that is so superbly plotted that I’m afraid to say anything about it because I want other readers to enjoy every reveal as much as I did. I just want to shove it in people’s hands and say, “read this right now!” It’s feminist. It’s satisfying. It was genuinely shocking. The Guest List has the atmosphere of a Gothic, but reads like a thriller. It’s fast-paced with lots of carefully timed reveals, and it’s told from multiple viewpoints.
Jules Keegan is a successful, driven woman who started and runs an online lifestyle magazine called The Download. The book is set during the weekend of her wedding to Will Slater, a survivalist and reality TV star of the show Survive the Night. Jules and Will are getting married on the remote Irish island of Inis an Amplóra. Jules, Will and the small wedding party will stay on the island while the rest of the guests will arrive and depart by boat the day of the festivities.
The book is split between first and third person narrative, as well as past and present. The present sections take place the night of the wedding and are told in the third person. Right from the first chapter these sections tell us that something very bad has happened on the wedding night. A storm has hit the island, the power is out, and there is a blood curdling scream from outside.
The other chapters lead us up to the wedding night, starting in the afternoon the day before as the wedding party arrives for their stay on the island. In these chapters we get the first person POV of Jules, the bride; Olivia, her college-aged sister and maid of honor; Johnno, the best man; Aoife, the wedding planner; and Hannah, the wife of Jules’ best friend and usher, Charlie.
It’s immediately apparent that Jules, Johnno and Olivia are harboring secrets. Jules has been receiving anonymous notes that say Will is a liar and she shouldn’t marry him. She’s also so obsessed with making her wedding perfect that she feels ready to crack at any moment. Olivia is recovering from some kind of trauma, although we don’t know what, and is clearly deeply depressed. She’s driven to self-harm, feeling that inflicting injury on herself gives her a measure of control. Johnno, Will’s best friend, feels out of place. He met Will at an elite public school (that would be private school in the US) called Trevellyn. He was there on scholarship and never felt that he quite fit in with Will’s crowd (some of whom are ushers in the wedding).
Aoife and Hannah provide an outsider’s perspective to the group. Aoife watches with unease as Will and his school-mates get more and more raucous during the celebrations. Hannah, who knows Jules and Will through her husband Charlie, also feels uncomfortable with how the men behave, and begins to wonder if her husband and Jules were ever more than “best friends.” She’s also one of the few people to notice how much Olivia is really struggling.
As the novel unfolds and we get closer and closer to finding out what happened the night of the wedding, it becomes apparent that all of the POV characters are connected, but the specifics of how truly surprised the hell out of me. Not to sound like an asshole, but I read a lot of thrillers and I can usually see the twist coming. This book shocked me and in the best way. When the events of the wedding night were revealed I was delightfully surprised, especially when I could look back and see how carefully the threads leading up to that point were woven in the narrative.
I loved that this book had the gloomy, windswept atmosphere of a Gothic novel (although it lacks other Gothic conventions). The island the wedding takes place on is remote and, while beautiful, treacherous. There are deadly bogs on the island, and it has a dark history. On the boat ride over, Hannah learns this from the captain:
Charlie and I shuffle nearer the cabin so we can hear. He’s got a lovely rich accent, does Mattie. “First people that settled the place,” he tells us, “far as it’s known, were a religious sect, persecuted by some on the mainland.”
“Oh, yes,” Charlie says, looking at his guide. “I think I saw a bit about that–”
“You can’t get everything from that thing,” Mattie says, frowning and clearly unimpressed by the interruption. “I’ve lived here all my life, see–and my people have been here for centuries. I can tell you more than your man on the internet.”
“Sorry,” Charlie says, flushing.
“Anyway,” Mattie says, “Twenty years ago or so the archeologists found them. All together in the turf bog they were, side by side, packed in tight.” Something tells me that he’s enjoying himself. “Perfectly preserved, it’s said, because there’s no air down there. It was a massacre. They’d all been hacked to death.”
“Oh,” Charlie says, with a glance at me. “I’m not sure–”
It’s too late, the idea is in my head now; long-buried corpses emerging from the black earth. I try not to think about it but the image keeps reasserting itself like a glitch in a video. The swoop of nausea that comes as we ride over the next wave is almost a relief, requiring all my focus.
While there are no supernatural elements to the novel, this Gothic sense of wrongness and fear of the landscape infects every one of the narrators. They see things out of the corners of their eyes, feel a chilly sense of evil among them. It was the perfect atmosphere for making a good thriller all the more creepy.
And this is a good thriller. As I said before, the plotting is excellent and the mystery is two-fold. We know something bad happens the night of the wedding, and we know many of our narrators are harboring secrets. All of the secrets tie into the big “event” the night Jules and Will get married, and they do so in a very original and compelling way. Once I’d finished, looking back at the text I could see all the clues I’d missed and how carefully they were revealed so that when I got to the end, everything fell into place perfectly. This isn’t a mystery per se, especially since we don’t know what to solve since we don’t know what happened the night of the wedding until the very end, but each of the POV characters’ stories support the final reveal. There is nothing extraneous in this book–everything contributes to the big finale. This is honestly probably the most tightly plotted, superbly paced thriller I’ve read ever.
And the big finale is extremely satisfying. I want to say as little about it as possible, but I will say this: justice is delivered in the most delicious of ways. The people who should get their comeuppance do, and the people who have been wronged get a chance at vengeance. In fact the ending to this book was so good it made me cackle. I’m a little ghoulish, what can I say?
This book is also not gorey, and while it does have some creepy aspects (like those people buried in the bog), I think it would be fine for more squeamish readers. I cannot recommend The Guest List strongly enough for fans of suspense. It’s wonderfully executed, feminist and has just enough Gothic flavor to make my heart happy. This is one outstanding thriller and I’ll be gifting to my creepy-shit loving friends.