Superb idea, so-so execution…
(Trigger warning for child abuse, domestic violence, and rape. This review contains clearly marked spoilers.)
It’s the accident season, the same time every year. Bones break, skin tears, bruises bloom. Years ago my mother tried to lock us all up, pad the hard edges of things with foam and gauze, cover us in layers of sweaters and gloves, ban sharp objects and open flames. We camped out together in the living room for eight days, until the carefully ordered takeout food—delivered on the doorstep and furtively retrieved by my mother, who hadn’t thought how she would cook meals without the help of our gas oven—gave us all food poisoning and we spent the next twenty-four hours in the hospital. Now every autumn we stock up on bandages and painkillers; we buckle up, we batten down. We never leave the house without at least three protective layers. We’re afraid of the accident season. We’re afraid of how easily accidents turn into tragedies. We have had too many of those already.
So let’s raise our glasses to the accident season,
To the river beneath us where we sink our souls,
To the bruises and secrets, to the ghosts in the ceiling,
One more drink for the watery road.
— 3.5 stars —
I can’t remember the last time I had such mixed feelings about a novel.
On the one hand, the story’s premise – every October the Morris-Fagan family is beset by a series of seemingly random accidents, from cuts and bruises to more serious calamities, like car accidents and drownings – is fabulous. The invention of a so-called “accident season” is creative and compelling and provides so many potential avenues of exploration. Are the accidents merely coincidence? Bad luck given meaning by a family who sees what it wants to see? (We humans have a way of forming patterns out of randomness.) A self-fulfilling prophecy? (The worst.) Or perhaps the accidents are the work of a sinister force, either supernatural or more worldly? (Not all monsters are nonhuman, you know.)
The plot gets even weirder than the synopsis hints at with the introduction of Elsie, a plain Jane, mousey girl who mysteriously appears in all of Cara’s photographs – even those taken on a family vacation on the Mediterranean. As the accident season of her junior year draws to a close, the narrator Cara; her older sister Alice; their ex-step-brother Sam; and Cara’s best friend Bea scramble to find Elsie, who’s suddenly gone missing from school and whose presence/absence seems somehow connected to the family’s ill fortunes.
So while The Accident Season has the bones of a killer story, the writing doesn’t always do it proud. I found my attention wandering throughout most of the book – up until the last quarter or so, when shit started to GET REAL – and considered DNF’ing several times. (Alas, the mystery of the accident season wouldn’t let me!) This feels very much like a debut novel, and not in a good way. Fowley-Doyle seems to have some grand ideas, but can’t quite pull them off without a hitch.
I can’t really point to a single thing that bothered me; overall, the writing just failed to hold my interest. Although the lack of resolution re: the Tin Man (was it Christopher, stalking them? a street performer who just resembled him? a ghost or changeling? a denizen of the disappearing magic/costume shop, whose thread was also so rudely left unresolved?) does stand out.
But dammit, I love so many of the details! The blend of supernatural and contemporary “issues” YA is great; it keeps you on your toes and guessing, if not until the very end, then pretty darn close.
There’s some pretty stellar symbolism here, and it goes well beyond the titular accident season. I especially enjoyed the secrets booth; not only does the imagery work well within the story, but I could see how it’d make for a pretty rad real-world art project, too. The theme of secrets is one that runs throughout the book, and the secrets booth is an ingenious way of driving this home: secrets typed up anonymously and later hung from the ceiling for all to see (and guess at, marvel over, etc.). An injured Cara running home from the ghost house, struggling under the weight of the secrets box. The typewriter and box, cracking the Morris-Fagan’s kitchen (the heart of every house; hence, their world) in half. The supernatural (or not) force behind it all. The girl no one can seem to remember. The secret everyone wants to forget.
** warning: spoilers ahead! **
The witchy Bea is awesome, and her unexpected romance with Alice lends an extra layer of diversity to the story. I also love how Fowley-Doyle just lets the relationship unfold, organically, without a whole lot of fanfare or soul-searching. They’re allowed to just be, like any other (read: heterosexual) couple. Not that it’s wrong for a coming-out story to be filled with angst; it’s just refreshing to find one that isn’t.
As much as incest stories make me cringe (Wincest, I’m looking at you!), the relationship between Cara and her not-quite-a-brother Sam was actually kind of sweet. They met when they were nine or ten, and have been best friends ever since; they’re not even legally related since Sam’s dad left, let alone biologically related, so…yeah. In Alice’s words, it’s a little weird, but wrong? Not necessarily.
Relationships are a big part of The Accident Season: taboo relationships, unhealthy relationships, criminal relationships. It seems like Fowley-Doyle juxtaposes nontraditional but otherwise healthy relationships with more traditional but abusive/nonconsensual ones in order to underscore just how messed up societal conventions can be. Alice and Bea go together much better than Alice and Nick, and yet which pairing is likely to be met with condemnation and discrimination?
** end: spoiler alert **
My expectations were really high with this one, and I’m a little bummed that they didn’t pan out. Still, the ending is almost worth it: trenchant and real and a sure-fire conversation starter, for parents and teachers and other adults who work with kids and teens.
(On that note, what’s with all the teenage smoking? I thought we as a society had agreed that Smoking Was Bad, and Making Smoking Look Cool Was Downright Evil? Or maybe things are different in Ireland? idk, but the nonchalance certainly took me aback.)
Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: Alice and Cara’s father died when they were children; their mother remarried several years later. Alice’s stepfather Christopher sexually abuses her. When Cara catches him coming out of Alice’s room one night, he slaps her; later he tries to drown her in the sea. When Melanie’s brother, Seth, begins to suspect the truth about his brother-in-law, Christopher kills him and makes it look like an accident. Melanie gets a restraining order to keep her ex away from the kids – including his son/her step-son, Sam – but tells the children that he left them for another woman and moved to Borneo.
As a teenager, Alice becomes involved with Nick, a musician four years her senior. We later learn that he’s physically and psychologically abusive. Alice tries to kill herself at least twice. Alice eventually leaves Nick for Bea, Cara’s best friend. Both girls had previously (only?) dated guys, though Fowley-Doyle avoids labeling them. Bea also kisses Cara, ‘like she has something to prove,’ but I got the impression that the exchange was really about Alice.
Sam’s mother died when he was just weeks old. After his father left, he went through a period of anger and depression.
Bea’s father also left, three years ago; he’s now remarried, with a wife and kids in England.
Melanie lost her first child Elsie when the bridge they were on collapsed; she was washed away in the river’s current and died a month later from pneumonia.
Animal-friendly elements: n/a