Catriona Ward’s star has been on the rise for some time now. The Last House on Needless Street was one of the best page-turners of 2021, garnering praise from genre stalwarts like Stephen King, as well as a pretty favourable review from Bookmunch towers. Now comes her fourth novel, Sundial. Hot on the heels of such a gripping, twisty horror-thriller, Sundial comes with a kind of baggage none of Ward’s other novels have had, and it’s rather a shame that it doesn’t quite hit the highs of some of her past books.
Rob is mum to the emotionally distant Callie, and quietly kind Annie; and wife to the controlling, vindictive Irving. After discovering Callie hoarding animal bones, and suspects her of trying to poison Annie, she realises that ghosts from her past have come back. Rob and Callie take a road trip to Sundial, Rob’s former childhood home, to confront some home truths about the family. As Rob puts it early on in the book, “I buried my old self at Sundial. We need to leave parts of Callie here, too.”
As with Ward’s other novels, particularly Rawblood and Needless Street, Sundial is set almost entirely in and around the titular house, rarely leaving the boundary, much like the family living within in. Despite the Mojave Desert setting, the sun-drenched atmosphere and oppressive heat, this is a gothic thriller. There are ghosts and shadows, the doors at Sundial are designed to let the breeze through, wafting curtains. There is even a makeshift graveyard visible from the windows. It’s Manderley at boiling point.
It’s clear to anyone who has read even a page of Ward’s novels before that she can create atmosphere like no-one else, and that she is especially good at getting inside someone’s head. Both Rob and Callie are afforded points of view in Sundial, and their increased suspicions about one another makes for some rather gripping reading. Likewise, the book discusses our fears of becoming our parents. Not only of Rob’s fear in watching her daughter and recalling similar childhood experiences, but also in her worries that she is becoming Mia, her late stepmother.
There are satisfying answers to some of the questions that Ward throws at you in the first half, just why is Rob still with the nightmare-ish and despicable Irving? What happened to Rob at Sundial and what is happening to Callie now? However, as Ward teases out the answers to the novel’s mysteries, the tension loosens somewhat. It’s easy to see where some of the story is going, and two last minute twists feel like they’ve come out of the blue. In its final chapters, Sundial tips into the ludicrous, and that’s quite disappointing given how enjoyable the build up is.
Still, the book remains entertaining, thoroughly readable, and drenched in a blistering summer heat. If it doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights of Needless Street, then that shouldn’t put you off.
Any Cop?: Sundial is good stuff. If it all gets a bit too silly in its final movements then so be it, the journey is worth it.