Review: The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James


The secrets lurking in a rundown roadside motel ensnare a young woman, just as they did her aunt thirty-five years before, in this new atmospheric suspense novel from the national bestselling and award-winning author of The Broken Girls.

Upstate NY, 1982. Every small town like Fell, New York, has a place like the Sun Down Motel. Some customers are from out of town, passing through on their way to someplace better. Some are locals, trying to hide their secrets. Viv Delaney works as the night clerk to pay for her move to New York City. But something isn’t right at the Sun Down, and before long she’s determined to uncover all of the secrets hidden…

RATING: ☆★☆★

There is a video I came across on Twitter a couple months ago, of a woman giving other women tips on how to protect themselves and stay safe if they have to venture outside at night (complete with where to best hide a pepper spray, how to wield your keys like you would a knife, and how many layers of clothes to wear). There was urgency and fear in the woman’s voice, and a haunted, fatalistic quality in her eyes that struck such a fundamental chord with me. The women in the replies were empathic, understanding, grateful. The men—who, by all appearances, had never been acquainted with true fear in all their days—were skeptical at best, deriding at worst. “Isn’t she exaggerating?” They scoffed. “It can’t really be that bad,” they decided.

But this is the lesson of every woman’s life: that there are no safe places. You will be defenseless. You will be as soft sands before the waves of a man who decided you were to die.

20-year-old Carly Kirk, the protagonist of Simone St. James’ horrifying but beguiling novel, is well-versed in the language of fear, native to every woman.

Carly’s aunt—Viv Delaney—vanished into thin air from the seedy upstate New York motel she worked the night shifts at, and her disappearance remained deeply seared on Carly’s mind, a permanent mental hangnail.

Though all Carly had to remember her aunt by was a newspaper clipping from 1982 and the grief in her heart, she sets out from her Illinois hometown to Fell, N.Y., searching on only the thinnest, most unlikely thread of hope, the need to find answers to her questions burning through her as though she were a candlewick. In Fell, Carly tries to piece together an aunt who is gone from a few clues, scattered across a small town where secrets collected inside like black soot. Carly’s quest gives her meek, unwelcome fear time to fuse into something cold, and when she blows the closet open, the skeletons spill out like blood at her feet.

What follows is a twisty flashback/flashforward narrative that balances two central and interlinked mysteries, shifting in ways that no decent reviewer should disclose. Although they don’t exist simultaneously, Carly and Viv’s stories run in eerie parallels. This illuminates the terrible gulf of years between twenty and fifty, but it also reminds us that this story has happened for generations, is happening right now, and will most certainly happen again. New grievances seem to always have a way of following old fault lines.

The Sun Down Motel is the kind of novel that begs to be read at one in the morning, under the covers, with a flashlight in your hand. Sleep is a thing I couldn’t remember while reading this book—the face and smell and texture of it all forgotten. The novel’s breakneck pacing is backed up by a sensation of constant dread which creates a keep-you-guessing air that’s simply magnetic. I watched, the way a fisherman watches a darkening cloud on the horizon, as the pieces of a pattern drifted closer together, until every part of the puzzle yielded its secrets. The motel not only plays a character in The Sun Down Motel, as many settings in good novels do, but it acts as part of the plot itself. The unsettling energy that buzzes throughout the motel is magnified by the rapid dissolving of the boundaries between the real and the supernatural, and soon, every shadow grows ripe with meaning, every detail crying out for the reader’s attention.

Both Carly and Delaney are engaging characters. Brave and confident that their course would throw up no obstacles so large that they could not be plowed over with sheer force of momentum, Carly and Delaney fly headlong into danger, like a loosed hound, seeking vengeance. Their stifled awe in the face of encroaching strangeness speaks, however, profoundly to our own numbness in a world where real wonders and horrors crop up every day. Still, it’s hard not to feel, in the baser part of yourself, a savage snarl of rage, while reading this novel. That sudden swoop of the stomach, the all-too-familiar coursing anger—at the men, monsters, who grew weary of desire and developed a taste for causing pain and the gratuitous, unavenged deaths of so many young women. I stepped out of this book feeling sick with that feeling, poisoned, turned inside out. I still do, to be honest.

If I have to point out a flaw in this novel, it would be the ending. On the one hand, The Sun Down Motel closes with a jarring reveal that fully justifies the obscuring of truth and arrangement of clues that leads up to it, but on the other hand, the conclusion feels lean and abrupt to the point of coming across rushed. The predictability of it has a flattening effect too, making singularly boring what should have been a defining moment, and I felt somewhat cheated of a more dramatic showdown that would resonate more deeply.

That said, don’t let that discourage you from picking up this book. Solid and smartly told, The Sun Down Motel is quite the remarkable achievement.


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