In horror, fear can come from a variety of places. Ghosts, demons (real or imagined), zombies, fascists, fascist zombies—the possibilities are endless. In the case of Catriona Ward’s Sundial, the call, as it were, is coming from inside the relationship.
From the outside, Rob looks like a picture of suburban perfection: nice clothes, a polished husband, a nice house, and two adorable daughters. This facade, though, is so thin it’s almost transparent. Roiling just beneath the surface is a Baskin Robbins 51-flavor special of domestic discord. The older of the two girls, 12-year-old Callie, mutters to people and animals that aren’t there, keeps a bone collection that would unnerve Tim Burton, and has a hands-on approach to her big-sister “duty” of disciplining Amy. Between his constant philandering, threats of taking the girls away from Rob, and truly psychotic “jokes” he plays on Rob, Rob’s husband, Irving, seems as though he’s vying for the title of most despicable person on the planet. He dotes on Callie while regarding Amy with ambivalence. Although Rob finds Amy far easier to connect with than Callie, she’ll be damned if she lets Irving turn either girl against her.
That, and there’s an awful lot of family history she needs to teach Callie before it’s too late. Together, Rob and Callie reluctantly leave Irving and a sick Amy at home while they take a mother-daughter trip out to Sundial, Rob’s childhood home in the Mojave Desert. It is at this point the book decides to reward us for the slog of establishing Rob’s Terrible Life with a bit of plot, and it’s a good prize. Rob’s chapters alternate between past and present, dealing with the competing hells of then and now. Just as she worries about Callie’s grip on reality, she tries to convey the fear and frustration that came with her twin, Jack, who bears more than a few similarities to the preteen. Meanwhile, Callie isn’t sure that Rob didn’t bring her all the way in the middle of nowhere to kill her and bury her body with the rest of the bones strewn just beneath the surface at Sundial.
The first several chapters of Sundial almost scared me off for good, and I won’t apologize for that. Ward makes the reader feel choked and helpless in a household seemingly designed to quash everything that gives Rob the slightest scrap of joy. I think she also tries to turn Rob into an unreliable narrator—or at least both Irving and the back-cover blurb try to with varying levels of specificity—but if anything, I felt Rob was underreacting to the absolute nightmare that was her life. Callie’s repeated fears that Rob would kill her seemed far less plausible than Callie deciding to beat her to the punch. At a certain point, reading became a challenge to Ward, a dare to subvert expectations in some way that didn’t feel ham-fisted.
Not to give any spoilers or anything, but she comes through in a way that feels surprising and yet perfectly in tune with the rest of the story. I didn’t think it was possible to end Sundial in a way that was more alarming than everything that came before it, but I was so marvelously wrong. The payoff is worth the toxic sludge permeating every page, and I know I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.
As I said, Sundial is not an easy book to read, in terms of its subject matter. I’ve written before about the conversation around including content/trigger warnings in books (and reviewed at least one that should have had one in it). I suppose this time I am weighing in on the debate. In the case of Sundial, I would have appreciated a bit of warning before reaching the part with vicious dog attacks, thanks very much. The descriptions of child abuse, and child-on-child abuse, and spousal abuse would likely be triggering for many, especially considering the specificity with which the book deals with these things. In some instances, the prose feels like Ward is pressing her thumb, not into a bruise, but into a gaping wound. I don’t want to defang literature, which goes double for books in the horror genre, but it would have been good to know I needed to be in a peachy place, emotionally speaking, before cracking it open.
So, here’s my content warning for Sundial: contains descriptions of child abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, severe dog attacks, coercion, and domestic violence (verbal, emotional, psychological, and physical). I think that covers it.
I think there is value, both generally and specifically in Sundial, to showing the ugly truth right down to the blood-crusted fingernails. Various forms of abuse run deep throughout my extended family, so I appreciated that this wasn’t a story about, say, the power of perseverance overcoming generational abuse and no trace remains. No, as much as Rob might be culpable for some of the acrimony in her home, it becomes increasingly clear that the dynamic of her childhood primed her to accept the behavior that becomes commonplace. In a way, the ending subverts that, too, but also supports the decision Rob makes that might otherwise be considered absurd. Especially as more of Rob’s past became clear, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of hope there was for Rob, but that’s way beside the point. In that way, Sundial adds to a conversation about dysfunction without showing the dysfunction as a spectacle in the way many other literary contribution to that conversation do.
Sundial is not a happy book, nor is it an easy book. But it’s unquestionably a worthwhile book—as long as you can stomach it.