UNBURY CAROL by Josh Malerman
Del Rey, April 2018
No one likes to be one of the pioneering negative reviews for a book, especially when you’re already invested in the author, so let me start out by saying: some readers are going to love this. Unbury Carol is not a bad book by any means – it was just not the book for me.
I recently read and adored Bird Box, and even though the summary for Unbury Carol seemed about as different from Bird Box as anything could be, I had enough faith in Malerman’s storytelling to confidently dive in. What I found was a very bizarre story, sort of a spaghetti western-horror-fantasy-fairytale hybrid.
Basically, Carol Evers has this condition where she goes into a coma for days at a time, and while she’s unconscious, she appears dead – you have to wait for a full minute to feel a pulse. When she slips into a coma at the beginning of the novel, this time her husband Dwight is conniving to bury her alive and steal her fortune. When he gets wind of what’s going on, a notorious outlaw – and Carol’s ex-lover – James Moxie, has to ride the Trail to Carol’s town, racing against time to save her.
Here’s my main problem with Unbury Carol: it relies on and perpetuates one of the most tired tropes of all time – the damsel in distress. That’s essentially what Carol is for the duration of the book. Whether Malerman eventually subverts this trope by having Carol save herself (which is hinted at early on as a possibility), I can’t say without getting into spoiler territory, but the fact is, rather than focusing on Carol herself, the majority of this novel is told from the point of view of male characters who have a vested interest in Carol’s fate: her husband Dwight, her former lover James, and a criminal called Smoke who’s hired to prevent James from reaching Carol in time. As an avid reader, it feels stale, and as a feminist, it feels insulting, to have Carol’s story stripped from her and framed around so many male characters. To clarify – Carol does have POV chapters. I don’t think everyone is going to agree with my assessment about her lack of agency – you could even argue that that’s the point, to illustrate the injustice of male characters having to fight for Carol’s sake. It just didn’t quite sit right with me, especially from a male author. I think any good intentions Malerman may have had with this book got swallowed up by a sort of unwieldy execution.
The good news is that Malerman still has a great way with words, and I flew through this pretty quickly. I liked several of his characters, too, especially Carol’s young and intelligent housekeeper, Farrah. Fans of westerns will probably be especially riveted by this story, which does well to evoke an old-timey western atmosphere, even though there are more fantastical elements than you’d traditionally expect. But the fact that I couldn’t even make it through Westworld probably should have clued me in that this wasn’t going to be for me.
Thank you to Del Rey and Josh Malerman for the ARC received in exchange for an honest review. Unbury Carol will be published in April 2018.