Charging toward her, I clutched her wrist. Wrestled her arm away from the wall. If I was nothing, how could I accomplish that? If I was nothing, why did it feel so good to squeeze her wrists together to force the Sharpie from her hand?
Behind her on the wall, Tanvi had added an “L” twice the size of any of the other letters. “Loser,” she sang to my face.
She twisted as she yanked backwards, sliding one of her hands free from my grasp. Wildly, she swung, her hand catching me under the eye while I weaved, missing the worst of it. She came at me again. Propelling herself forward like a slam dancer. I flung out my arms to stop her from knocking me off balance. She struggled against me, skirting left. Glass shards shifted under her heel like a current, sending her down.
Tanvi gaped up at me from the floor in shock, her eyes searching for something familiar and comprehensible to hold on to, and not finding it. Her upper body had fallen safely away from the scattered glass. The shards lay grittily under her jeans and her shoes, where thick fabrics would have offered protection.
I stood over her, understanding streaming through me with a fullness that burrowed into my core. It twinged along my back and filled up the spaces between my ribs, making me whole. This is what it felt like to have power over someone. To know if they hurt you, there was always a way you could hurt them more. They could never really win
The warmth oozing inside me died as swiftly as it had materialized. A chill sped in after it. Disgust. Self-loathing deeper than any fracking well and equally toxic. I hated myself more than I'd ever hated Tanvi. Hated with a cold, sinewy vengeance that although I hadn't shoved her to the floor – and had never hit her – for the briefest second or two, it had felt good to watch her fall.
Cara Martin's eerie supernatural novel begins on a creepy note, but not because of ghosts or haunted houses. Readers first see the protagonist, Misha, stalking his ex-girlfriend Tanvi only to see her, her friend and her cousin get kidnapped. When Misha tries to stop the kidnappers, he is beaten up and taken too. This opening sets the tone for the rest of the novel, with the audience knowing the darker side of Misha (something he desperately tries to keep hidden), and introduces the theme of breaking the cycle of abuse and overcoming inner darkness.
Immediately after the kidnapping, the story flashes back to show Misha and Tanvi's relationship, and how it fell apart. Misha was shocked to see Tanvi in the real world considering he had been having dreams of her for a long time. He does not tell her about his dreams though, even when he learns that she has similar ones, hoping to preserve the relationship and not ruin anything. They open up to each other about their lives, with Tanvi telling him about her aunt Alice's recent death and her parents’ dying when she was young, and how she now lives with her aunt and uncle. Misha tells her about his father and the abuse his mother suffered throughout his childhood before the man robbed a bank and ran away.
The two teenagers are perfectly happy with each other until Misha sees Tanvi at the mall with her ex-boyfriend, and his anger gets the best of him, leading him to cheat on her at a party and eventually to his posting a naked picture of Tanvi online. When Tanvi confronts Misha about his actions, she destroys his room, and Misha grabs her, giving him a moment where he enjoys the power he has over her, an action echoing his father's treatment of his mother. Tanvi leaves, and Misha begins to drive by her house to see how she's doing, reaching the point where the story began.
Misha, Tanvi, her friend Cal, and younger cousin Lauren are taken to an old decaying house in the woods named Shantallow. Tanvi and Lauren are to be ransomed since their grandparents own a chain of restaurants and are well-off. During their time in Shantallow, Lauren becomes possessed, the four kidnappers are picked off, and when the group tries to escape, they are led back to the house in an endless cycle. Both Tanvi and Misha see apparitions of Alice and Misha's father; at first they feel threatened, but later find that their ghosts are trying to guide them. This serves as a healing moment for both of them as they find they are not haunted by their pasts but rather are being helped by them. Misha especially is healed by seeing his father because now he can see that the man was not all bad and neither is he.
After freeing Lauren of her possession, the four kidnapped kids are able to escape the house, but Misha and Tanvi are separated from Cal and Lauren. Tanvi reaches a point where she cannot go further and tells Misha he has to go without her, both of them knowing this is the moment they were dreaming about before they ever came to Shantallow. Before Misha leaves, he confesses to Tanvi how he felt when he stood over her in his room, saying he felt like his father when he was beating his mother. Tanvi tells Misha his father isn't like that anymore and he doesn't have to be either.
Martin's novel is a genuinely creepy and, at times, a terrifying experience. Lauren's possession is played out masterfully, and her taunting of the group is chilling. Interspersed through the book are creepy and haunting pictures to go along with what is happening in the story, and they add to the tone of the book and stimulate the imagination of the reader. The atmosphere of Shantallow (both the house and the novel) is eerie and horrifying, leaving readers in suspense, not knowing what will come next.
However, the true charm of Shantallow is how the perpetual darkness forced upon the characters forces them to confront their own darkness and grow from it. From the very beginning of the novel, readers see that Misha is doing and has done bad things, but Martin writes in a way that readers want to see Misha be the person he wishes to be. Shantallow makes Misha and Tanvi face their pasts and see that they can move beyond it to be better people. The cathartic moment predicted in their dreams where they part ways is an extremely satisfying end to both character arcs. They may not be able to be together after everything that has been done, but they both leave Shantallow in a better place than when they entered it.
Martin's representation of South Asian and transgender characters is also wonderfully done. Tanvi's South Asain heritage and mixed family, as well as Lauren's transition, are made clear but also not a focal point of the novel, instead being seamlessly woven into the narrative. Misha's family and their responses to his father's abuse of them are also wonderfully represented. The way Misha echoes his father and his abusive tendencies feels very real, but readers also see glimpses of how his mother and sister deal with their trauma as well. Martin's writing and her representations of these issues are grounded firmly in reality.
Cara Martin has created a beautifully haunting rendition of the classic haunted house tale that feels true to the genre but offers a new twist. The horrors and darkness of the novel offer the characters a chance to grow and change for the better, leaving them better off than they were before. Rather than a story about death and destruction, Shantallow is a story about healing.
Deanna Feuer is an English Literature graduate from the University of the Fraser Valley. She lives in Langley, British Columbia.