Sweet Damage
Rebecca James
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Buy *Sweet Damage* by Rebecca Jamesonline

Sweet Damage
Rebecca James
304 pages
December 2014
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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In Australia, James’s novel is marketed as a young adult title, but this book is so much more. A melodrama with a psychotic twist, Sweet Damage’s distinctive voice is pale and unhappy Anna London, who lives alone on the Fairlight Estate, a beautiful old sandstone and brick mansion that looks out over Sydney Harbor. Spending her lonely days plagued by agoraphobia and panic attacks, Anna’s only friends are siblings Marcus and Fiona.

Fairlight is an enormous place with lush gardens, but it’s also gloomy, cold, and oppressive--a far cry from colorful Sydney, which is enjoying one of the most blistering summers on record. As Anna casts her furtive gaze across the Harbor toward all the people engaging in different, happier lives, she worries about renting a room out to easygoing, optimistic Tim, who works at his father’s restaurant opposite Manley Beach. Unlike Anna, Tim is loved and confident, certain of his place in the world. He’s “not broken down by life, or by circumstance,” and he’s never been betrayed by his own frail, fractured mind.

Tim is initially in love with grand, majestic Fairlight, but it doesn’t take long for him to be spooked by the house and by Anna, who seems just too shy and unfriendly. “A bad actor wearing an ill-fitting costume,” Anna likes Tim, and she sees his presence as a way to escape from her spinning mind and pathetic anxieties. She also has a strong desire to belong, to reinvent herself and have a friend. Tim is a welcome distraction from the miserable preoccupations which haunt Anna: her obsession with going over the past and wishing she could go back in time.

Ensconced in Fairlight’s attic room, to which she’s drawn like a compulsion and an addiction, Anna longs for a bigger life--a life of allure, a life that haunts a young girl unformed in her views of herself as seen through the eyes of Tim. But when Tim wakes in the dead of night to the shape of a person watching him, Fairlight is suddenly “too big, too empty, and too dark.” Marcus and Fiona are defensive when Tim questions them about Anna and Fairlight’s spooky goings-on. Suddenly, the mood changes from cheerful to somber as all three are weighed down with something dense and unhappy. Anna begins to confess to Tim about her childhood--her stormy relationship with her mother and how her emotional hold over her was “like a cell with an unlocked door.”

The novel’s sense of dread is complemented by the twists and turns of Fairview Manor, where beautiful. desperate, waiflike Anna and handsome Tim converge to love, learn, and meet their never-dreamed-of fates. Glamorous Lilla, Anna’s dark-haired nemesis, holds secrets of her own. Tim has known Lilla since high school, though she’s not quite his type (“ too aggressive, too on edge, and maybe little intimidating”). Lilla marches into Fairlight with her small, cold smile, her strange class envy, and her resentment of Anna’s privilege. Much of the story is told from Tim’s perspective. There’s a tension in simply waiting for his story to build to its inevitable tragic end. Anna is far from a normal girl, although, like others, she craves acceptance, love, and friendship.

Lilla’s decision to hold a birthday party for Tim sets up the climax and the “damage” that will be revealed. This is a careless bacchanal during which Tim’s friends, Lilla’s current boyfriend, and Marcus and Fiona all converge on Fairlight for a wild night of drinking, debauchery, and a touch of the paranormal in the form of a creepy incident in Tim’s bedroom. Lilla may be “a hateful, spiteful bitch,” yet Tim still confides in her, becoming wary of Anna and her inexplicable need to shut herself away from the world. As this suspenseful, gothic tale reaches its dreaded climax, Lilla and Anna become study in contrasts: Anna self-effacing and quiet, Lilla irritating and confrontational, always giving “her opinion whether you want to hear it or not.”

Once Tim decides to let Lilla temporarily stay at Fairlight, the fuse is lit, and it's only a question of how long until the explosion. Faced with the full force of Lilla’s wrath, Anna will need to call on her inner strength to save herself, her new lover, and the passionate world they have created.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Michael Leonard, 2014

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