They say you should start a book off with a good hook. That if you don’t grab your reader right away, you risk losing them. No worries with The Burn Palace, by Stephen Dobyns. From the first page when you meet Nurse Spandex (who wears her scrubs so they “show off her figure”) who’s just ditched the babies in the small-town hospital’s nursery for a rendezvous with a handsome doctor, you are immersed in this book. And for good measure, there’s the giant snake that now lays in the bassinet where a baby used to be.
The Burn Palace shows off exactly how it will work in its early pages. Inexplicable things happen, though this book isn’t using magical realism. How do you explain something like that? How can it be real? The twists and turns of the book are astonishing and frightening. While it’s basically a mystery (what happened to the missing baby) it’s also a horror story. It’s a little risky to read before bedtime.
There’s a lot that elevates it beyond being just a scary story. There’s Dobyns’ fantastic prose that feels effortless and easy but can paint an entire character in just a few words. That ability is put to good use, since The Burn Palace isn’t just concerned with solving a small mystery. This is a mystery that engulfs an entire small town in Rhode Island. And Dobyns takes you into the homes and lives of so many characters that you feel you know this place by the time the book is over. Usually I have trouble with books that have lots of characters. I get confused and I have trouble remembering who’s who. That didn’t happen here. Instead I was constantly impressed with how well I knew everyone, how easily I could follow their personal stories along with the larger narrative.
But no mystery or horror works if it’s not well-plotted. Nothing is more frustrating when you read a book than to get to the end to find that all the build-up doesn’t lead to a satisfying payoff. Even two-thirds of the way through the book I had no idea how Dobyns would be able to take all these events, all these stories, all these strange happenings and turn them into something coherent. The book had an ever-escalating sense of chaos and fear and I started to worry that it wasn’t going to be able to resolve at all. And then, somehow, it did. And it worked.
On Goodreads, I gave this book 5 stars, something I rarely do. It was an easy decision. I do it when a book both keeps me fully engaged but I also spend my time in awe of how the book is casting its spell.
Thanks to Blue River Press for providing me with an e-galley of this book. It’s also coming up for review on Red Letter Reads soon!