A Room Away From the Wolves, Nova Ren Suma (Algonquin 978-1-61620-373-3, $18.95, 315pp, hc) September 2018.
A Room Away From the Wolves is the story of 17-year-old Sabina (“Bina”) who runs away from her small upstate New York home for a Manhattan boarding house that caters to young women seeking safety and security. Bina’s story is sadly familiar; she and her two stepsisters fight constantly and to keep the family peace her mother has decided to send her off to friends. This is yet another in a long line of episodes where Bina has been the last choice for her mother, and it is the final straw. After a disastrous late night appearance at a party in the woods where the sisters humiliate her one more time, Bina grabs her suitcase and leaves. Her destination is Catherine House in Greenwich Village, the place her mother once lived as a young woman and where hopefully she can find her own way in the world.
It is at Catherine House that Suma brings on the paranormal tension. Everyone appears to know Bina and know that her mother once lived in the house. The other boarders, all young women, are varying degrees of mysterious, with some in overly elegant clothing while others appear in tatters. The landlady is straight out of a gothic novel and demands her signature on a bizarre agreement and, most disturbing of all, Bina feels a deep sense of foreboding as she stands before the large portrait of the woman who formerly owned the building. Catherine de Barra either committed suicide or was murdered and is now buried the garden. Everyone expects Bina to do something for Catherine, something that will change all of their lives. When she can’t deliver, their disappointment becomes a stealthy but frightening thing and Bina realizes that she may not be safe at all.
And that’s the novel. Bina also makes a friend (maybe) with a fellow lodger named Monet who delights in defying every house rule. She tracks down her estranged father, only to be deeply disturbed by their meeting. She finds a lodger nearly dead and calls the police only to be made a fool. She considers the mystery behind a long missing cat. She can’t reach her mother on the phone and hears only static when a call goes through. She finds a piece of jewelry that should be lost forever. She keeps remembering something that happened the night before she left home, something at that last horrible party in the woods that was truly awful. She can’t get a job, she can’t go home, she can’t get to the bottom of what happened years ago to Catherine de Barra. Nothing in Bina’s life makes sense, and maybe she is losing her mind or maybe she is haunted. And then there is the ending and, if you have ever read anything else by Nova Ren Suma, then you knew – you knew – something like that ending was coming. And this is where I have to tell you how it ends.
Every review I could find of A Room Away From the Wolves makes a point of saying something about the ending. Either they complain that it is too ambiguous or question what it might mean or consider that it means nothing at all. I can’t help but think that most of them miss the point. Suma has been laying clues throughout the narrative, casting them about like the most minute of breadcrumbs. She has led Bina to the same realization as the reader, and she has made clear where she is going. This is indeed a haunted house story, it is in fact the most haunted of houses, but readers have to be careful where they look for that haunting and consider what they might have missed.
So hold on tight as you turn the pages of A Room Away From the Wolves. Be prepared for lush language, evocative descriptions, and countless moments that will strike a shiver down your spine. Get ready to wonder, to second-guess yourself, to linger long on the page as you consider just where this author is taking you. Nova Ren Suma is a master at quiet shock and awe and she unleashes all of her power in this novel. There are wolves in the life of every teenage girl, she whispers; don’t turn your back or they might get you, too.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the December 2018 issue of Locus.
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