Published: January 30th 2014, Simon & Schuster
Pages: 368 pages, hardback
Acquired: Kindly sent for review by the publisher
Summary (from Goodreads): When thirteen-year-old James discovers a homeless man in an abandoned house, the course of his life changes dramatically. Hoping to find a 'cure' for a dark curse inflicted on the homeless man, the pair embark on a journey together not knowing that what they discover will impact them both in ways they never imagined...A gripping and haunting story about loss and hope, perfect for fans of Patrick Ness and David Almond.
First impressions: There's something about this one that's so intriguing and I can't quite put my finger on it. Debuts are always interesting; I think the potential to discover a new favourite author always pulls me towards debut writers. Maybe it was that, or maybe it was nostalgic feel the summary gave me. Either way, despite a huge TBR pile I picked this up and devoured it as soon as my copy arrived.
Story: James is struggling with the loss of his mother and lives a miserable existence with his stepfather, who has been left to care for him after his mother passed away. We quickly learn that James's home life is disruptive and abusive and leaves him at the mercy of his stepfather's internal rage every time he drinks. Which is often. To cope, James hides out in an abandoned house and draws on the walls as a way of passing the time. But one day he realises he isn't alone, he's sharing his fortress of solitude with a mysterious, injured man. And it's after meeting Webster that James life changes forever.
We see the pair go on an adventure that takes them across country, to gypsy camps and the moors, meeting a whole host of characters along the way. This isn't a light-hearted adventure novel, though, the tone is set from the outset and it's this bleak, wistful feeling that encircles the story that makes it so powerful. There's this aching for James to come to terms with the loss of his mother, and for Webster to accept his past and the darkness that dwells within him.
This novel isn't just about the darkness within Webster, though, it's about the darkness inside all of the characters. And by reaching out from the pages, grabbing the reader and refusing to let go, it's about the darkness inside all of us as well.
Writing: There's a lot to The Dark Inside. Layers upon layers of meaning and I think every reader will take something different away from it. There are supernatural elements...or are there? Wallis is very clever when it comes to this, as he writes in such a way that the reader can decide for themselves whether there really is anything paranormal afoot or if there's an explanation for all the strange goings on that happen. I love a novel where I'm given free rein to make my own mind up about things and it's one of the many reasons why I love this book so much.
The writing has such a gorgeous, dreamy feel to it, as if I'm watching the story unfold through a hazy lens. This reminds me of the books I read as a teenager and fell in love with, it just feels timeless.
Characters: James is such a sweet boy, so full of hope, despite everything he's gone through. He has the belief that things can get better, that he can overcome the pain in his heart and it's a reminder I think we all need sometimes - that time is a great healer and, although loved one are never forgotten, it is possible to go on and live a full life after they've gone. He's plucky too and has a dark sense of humour, making it easy to enjoy this book as an adult reader, despite the age of the protagonist.
My heart absolutely broke for Webster, pretty much from the moment he was introduced. Such a deeply troubled man, he's impossible to work out and I still haven't quite made my mind up about what I think the truth of his story is. The fact I'm still making up my mind and I read this book a month ago should tell you exactly how strongly I feel about it.
Final thoughts: The Dark Inside isn't a book you can just read once and put back on your shelf to gather dust. It's a book that you can't stop thinking about, that you have to tell people about and, for me, that's the mark of a truly powerful novel. A staggering debut by a writer I think we'll all be watching out for in the future.