Book review: ‘Girl in the Walls’ a literary thriller that defies the genre

A.J. Gnuse is the author of "Girl in the Walls." (Courtesy of Harper Collins)
Caption
A.J. Gnuse is the author of "Girl in the Walls." (Courtesy of Harper Collins)

Three children navigate what’s real and what’s not

We’ve all heard it before. An odd creak in the house, a scrape, a knock. It’s the house settling, we tell ourselves. Or our imagination. But what if it’s not? There are stories on the internet about people finding strangers living in their crawlspaces and attics. What if you think you’re alone in your home, but you’re not? That is the unsettling premise of A.J. Gnuse’s literary debut, “Girl in the Walls.”

The novel begins as an eerie meditation on grief, family dysfunction and things that go bump in the night. But about halfway through, Gnuse’s masterfully crafted slow burn ignites into a hair-raising thriller that is as unnerving as it is unexpected.

This is no conventional thriller, though. The usual tropes of the genre are missing, except for one. At the center of the story is a big, old, rambling house containing lots of secret passages and hidey holes. But there are no ghosts or diabolical tenants. No one is held captive against their will. Instead, someone is hell-bent on staying put.

Located near the levee outside of New Orleans, the house is home to Nick and Laura Mason, and their teenage sons Marshall and Eddie. Marshall is a bit of a bully who’s embarrassed by his younger brother. Eddie is a sensitive loner who’s possibly on the autism spectrum. The family members tend to keep to themselves, seeming to live separate lives of unspoken despair within the sprawling house.

Marshall resents having to help his parents with their endless list of home improvement projects, and he longs for Eddie to be “a normal brother.” Eddie lives in fear of Marshall’s wrath and just wants to be left alone. Their parents wonder what’s wrong with both their sons, and they fret over the cost and labor required to maintain their new home. A hodgepodge of design styles, the house reflects a history “of people trying, and failing, decade after decade, to make the house their own.”

Before the Masons moved in, the house belonged to 11-year-old Elise and her parents. To Elise’s dismay, her family had moved out of the house and into a newer home where, she observes, their furniture looked out of place. A couple of months later, she was orphaned by a tragic automobile accident that she miraculously survived.

Courtesy of Harper Collins
Caption
Courtesy of Harper Collins

“Home’s where you’re loved,” Elise is told on her first day in foster care. So that’s where she goes. Late one night, she escapes through a window and walks back to the place where she was last happy — the residence now occupied by the Masons. There she builds a life within the house’s in-between spaces — under floorboards in the attic, in a closed-off laundry chute, inside the walls. And when the Masons are at work and school or church, she ventures into the rooms, rummaging for food in the pantry, watching TV in the library and taking books from Eddie’s bedroom.

Of all the Masons, Elise likes Eddie best. “Before, when Elise went to school, she knew of strange boys like him. So often they sat in the back corner of class, ignored, until those times during presentations when they were required to stand before the chalkboard and show, fully, how different they really were.”

Eventually, Eddie grows aware of Elise’s presence in the house. At first, it’s just an intuition that he’s being watched, but then telltale signs become apparent like his missing books and a minor addition to his Lego castle. He keeps quiet about it, though, until Marshall arrives at the same conclusion: They are not alone.

When their parents refuse to believe their sons’ suspicions, the boys bond in their effort to find the interloper on their own. But Marshall takes things too far when he enlists the help of a man he finds on the internet who volunteers to flush the intruder out when the parents are out of town one weekend.

Mr. Traust is an unforgettable villain whose epic aggression and monstrous acts evoke iconic literary bad guys like Callanwolde in Pat Conroy’s “The Prince of Tides.” He’s also reminiscent of the outsized characters Elise reads about in Eddie’s book on Norse mythology.

Elise had come to expect bad news to come in threes, and sure enough, a trio of horrific events occur that threaten her life. During the course of these trials, she comes to terms with some life lessons, including the realization that she can’t hide forever from the unpleasant aspects of life. “Maybe this was aging, growing up. … A progression of hells, of fires and storms that make the world seem less and less like the one you thought you knew.”

And during a moment of delirium, the image of the Norse god Odin gives her some sage advice on grieving her parents: “(Y)ou’ll never stop missing them. No matter where you are, how old you are. But hurt gets softer. Quieter, I think. You’ll be an old woman, and you’ll still hold them in that hurt.”

Laura confronts some harsh realities, too. Despite her efforts to protect her home and family with an elaborate alarm system, she realizes that security is ultimately an illusion. She also recognizes her failing as a mother. With shame, she tells Nick they are both guilty of ignoring their children. In that way, “Girl in the Walls” is the story of three parentless children left to fend for themselves in a capricious world.

FICTION

“Girl in the Walls”

by A.J. Gnuse

Harper Collins

336 pages, $27.99