Novel: The Fall by Bethany Griffin | Goodreads
Release Date: October 7, 2014
Publisher: Greenwillow (HarperCollins)
Madeline Usher is doomed.
She has spent her life fighting fate, and she thought she was succeeding. Until she woke up in a coffin.
Ushers die young. Ushers are cursed. Ushers can never leave their house, a house that haunts and is haunted, a house that almost seems to have a mind of its own. Madeline’s life—revealed through short bursts of memory—has hinged around her desperate plan to escape, to save herself and her brother. Her only chance lies in destroying the house.
In the end, can Madeline keep her own sanity and bring the house down? The Fall is a literary psychological thriller, reimagining Edgar Allan Poe’s classic The Fall of the House of Usher.
I had high hopes for this one. I’m drawn towards retellings – particularly if they’re from a solid author I’ve enjoyed in the past – but The Fall was too scattered for me. I normally try to avoid books I don’t think I’ll like, and more particularly, avoid reviewing them. The Fall had some great moments, but the flaws outbalanced my admiration and left me disappointed.
The Fall follows an Edgar Allan Poe tale called The Fall of the House of Usher. In Griffin’s version, a girl named Madeline lives in the house, sensitive to the personification and desires of its sentient nature. With her twin brother Roderick away at school – and her deceased parents fallen victims to the curse – she’s entirely alone. Except for the House and the doctors, quivering in their eagerness to study the Usher line and its macabre affliction.
Now that Madeline’s older, she no longer sees the House as protective: she sees it as abusive, crippling, inherently malevolent. As the heir of the Usher line, she falls to the same fits, the same horrible curse that obstructs any hope of freedom.
Being confined within the house – and confined by the House – is enough to drive the residents insane. Generation after generation, Ushers have succumbed to the desires of the House, to the crippling darkness of its desires. But as the House closes in around Madeline, it begins driving her to the brink of insanity, leaving her alone and traumatized by its disturbing displays of power.
Madeline sets out to destroy the house – and most of all, to escape.
The eerie, unsettling mood of the book started out strong. The malignant personification of the House of Usher was vivid, dreary and inherently volatile. The rush of description – dripping candles, hushed sounds, paintings steeped in dirt and dimly lit – aroused my interest initially, but the overuse of similar imagery tired out after a few chapters.
Quite simply, the House was more alive than any of the characters. Madeline’s insidious connection with the House’s needs, and its malevolent emotional state at a given time, propelled the story into an immersive state of danger, which added some much-needed depth. I truly wonder whether it would have been more effective if written in third person, providing an overarching sense of plot and character without delving too deeply into the insipid flashbacks that made up the girth of the story.
The characters were both the highlight and the low point. Because the entire book is confined within one alive setting, it was character-driven by nature. The ambiguity and shadow that made each person so compelling in the beginning led the plot towards disrepair when it failed to follow through.
Madeline wasn’t consistent enough for me to like her. If she were simply an unreliable narrator – capricious or disturbed or in other ways, compelling– it wouldn’t have bothered me but her unexplained connections to certain aspects of the plot bothered me. Despite the fact that much of the book consists of flashbacks, depictions, moments, she was never tangible enough to empathize with. Her slight descent into madness was both romanticized and condemned, the narrative switching between the two interchangeably.
Dr. Winston was disturbing. His desire for Madeline was inexplicably twisted with his romanticization of her death. The doctors themselves faded in and out of existence by the book’s whims, leading it to feel chaotic. Roderick was strange. His absences were never quite explained enough, his character hovering between insanity and infallible logic. Towards the end, these mercurial qualities of supporting characters made me indifferent to their plights.
The historical connections linked throughout – and the characters’ confinement within one setting – led to a slightly ambiguous timing. There were details like coats and candelabras and carriages that shrouded the narrative in a lush feel, but the dialogue slipped in strange patterns that made me unsure about the timing. It became strangely formal in the end, which distanced me from the story.
There were also points of intensity and straight atmosphere, draped in unsettling imagery from the house striking back, but those moments were juxtaposed with statements of clarity. Gaps in logic made everything feel jumbled.
That in itself made the pacing feel wildly off base; I was confused when I shouldn’t have been. Moments of conflict, of climax, were written too quickly while the middle sagged with overused description and repetitive action. The end felt crammed with facts that were completely irrelevant to the first part of the book, and it made suspending my reality difficult.
The Fall continued in the vein of Ashes on the Waves and Nevermore, with hints of Flowers in the Attic speckling the haunting plot. Aspects like the curse, Lisbeth’s diary, and the family connection to the House of Usher were thrown in and out without much thought. It’s obviously well researched, which is why I was so disturbed by the messiness of it. I know Griffin to be a capable writer, effortlessly weaving atmosphere and organization, so The Fall felt so devastating.
All in all, The Fall seemed like it was trying to do too much. If Bethany Griffin had been more consistent with her mood and plot – committing to a few, strong plot points like she did with Masque of the Red Death – I probably would have enjoyed it much more than I did. I would excuse it, saying that it’s absurdly difficult to capture the distinct qualities of Edgar Allan Poe’s work, but I loved Ashes in the Waves, which followed a similar structure. Unfortunately, I was disappointed with The Fall and would not recommend it to those with similar taste.