REVIEW: There Should Have Been Eight by Nalini Singh
They met when they were teenagers. Now they’re adults, and time has been kind to some and unkind to others—none more so than to Bea, the one they lost nine long years ago. They’ve gathered to reminisce at Bea’s family’s estate, a once-glorious mansion straight out of a gothic novel. Best friends, old flames, secret enemies, and new lovers are all under one roof—but when the weather turns and they’re snowed in at the edge of eternity, there’s nowhere left to hide from their shared history.
As the walls close in, the pretense of normality gives way to long-buried grief, bitterness, and rage. Underneath it all, there’s the nagging feeling that Bea’s shocking death wasn’t what it was claimed to be. And before the weekend is through, the truth will be unleashed—no matter the cost.
I am a fan of closed circle mysteries, though I wasn’t sure if this one would qualify, since it at first seemed to be about friends reuniting nine years after the death of a beloved friend, rather than one where a character is killed and there are limited number of suspects. Things developed in the latter direction, but it took a while.
The narrator, Luna, is 29, and we find out almost on the first page that she is going blind. This is a huge fear of mine, so I was inclined to be sympathetic even if at times I got annoyed by the constant reminders that soon she would not be able to see. Ironically, I guess, Luna is a photographer, and she’s determined to get as much on film as she can while she can.
The story is set in New Zealand, with a diverse cast (something Singh excels at). Luna is ethnically Chinese, though she is adopted, presumably by a white family (it’s not made clear except that she notes the difference in coloring between her and her mother). The group includes a native Maori, a child of refugees from Sudan, and a character of Indian descent, among others. I really do like Singh’s commitment to portraying a melting pot with her characters.
At the start of the story, Luna is headed north, to a part of New Zealand that she refers to as “alpine” (Washington state was my point of reference, but I have no idea how accurate that was). She’s getting together with old friends she met as a teenager. There actually *are* eight in the group, since one member brings a new girlfriend. Our cast of characters:
Luna; narrator, photographer, secretly going blind;
Darcie and Ash; the hosts – it’s Darcie’s dilapidated but still impressive family estate that is the site of the reunion;
Vansi and Phoenix, Luna’s best friend and her husband – Vansi is a nurse and Phoenix is a doctor on the verge of becoming a surgeon;
Aaron and Grace; he is part of the group and she is his new fiancée – Aaron is sweet-natured and religious (though the latter is conveyed with a light touch) and Grace is very bubbly;
Kaea; handsome, charming and promiscuous; he’s a lawyer.
The missing person the – “should have been” – is Darcie’s younger sister Bea. Nine years before she had disappeared from the group, then died at a distant location, ostensibly by suicide. Luna is even now not reconciled to the loss of Bea. I mentioned that I was inclined to be sympathetic to Luna because of her impending blindness, but by a quarter of the way through she was working on my nerves hard.
Luna’s devotion to Bea felt unwholesome and honestly creepy. Luna states on several occasions that she would do anything for Bea. She mentions that her attachment is not sexual, twice I think, but it feels like it kind of is? Which – that part is not creepy, but the dynamics of the relationship, the intensity of Luna’s devotion and her insistence that Bea was the most beautiful, wondrous creature to ever walk the Earth – all of that was really strange and off-putting. It made me view Luna as an unreliable narrator, which I don’t think was the intent, since her view of Bea is never really challenged by the other characters. It’s just…very, very weird.
The group passes an uneventful first night, but things start to fall apart the next day. A freak storm hits while most of the group are out hiking, and they return soaked, with Kaea injured. Kaea is the strongest and most competent hiker of the friends, and later he shares with Luna that one of his shoes was apparently deliberately damaged right before the hike, leading to his fall and injury.
It’s at this point that I kind of wondered what would happen if Kaea and Luna just confronted the group with the evidence of sabotage. But that never happens in this type of book, so they keep it to themselves. There’s also some business with a doll of Bea’s that keeps turning up unexpectedly and traumatizing Darcie. It begins to be clear that either one (or more) of the group is acting with bad intent or….there’s someone else in the house. Did I mention that the house has a number of secret passages?
Then the rain turns to snow and soon the group are genuinely snowed in. Tensions rachet up as a character disappears and is later found in a secret room with an unexplained head injury.
There is some business with Darcie’s ancestors, the original tenants of the mansion. The mother of the family (whose secret diary Luna finds) was essentially a mail-order bride brought over from England, and her husband was at best dour and at worst erratic. Their oldest daughter seemed to hate her younger siblings, and eventually the mother and those younger siblings died in a house fire that caused great damage to the house (the damaged parts were never torn down, for reasons unclear). The suggestion seems to be that perhaps the eldest daughter, Elizabeth, killed her mother and siblings.
It’s further suggested that there is a strain of madness that affects the family’s descendants to this day. Darcie confides in Luna that Bea was severely mentally ill, and in fact was medicated heavily from the age of 13. Luna finds this hard to believe, both because she never saw signs of mental illness in Bea and because Luna literally worships the ground Bea walked on and doesn’t like to hear anything that could be construed as bad about her. She instead suspects Darcie; for a longtime close friend, Luna doesn’t actually seem to like Darcie that much. Luna resents that Darcie has Ash, who loved Bea first (Luna is convinced he still does).
I have complaints about some of Singh’s writing tics in her Psy/Changeling books, but there were different prose issues with There Should Have Been Eight. For some reason Luna constantly refers to Vansi as her “best friend” – by my count 22 times in the book. It was in situations where it made more sense just to use her name; e.g. “my best friend walked into the room”, “my best friend hates kumquats.” It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it really annoyed me, and it increased my annoyance with Luna.
Luna was really my big problem with the book. A few issues aside, the writing was good and the plot was strong. The denouement was twisty as expected (though I half-guessed the identity of a villain). As a mystery There Should Have Been Eight was a reasonably satisfying book. There are aspects of the plot that don’t bear close scrutiny, but I can live with that.
But: Luna. She is a cipher. We know a collection of facts about her – she’s adopted, she’s a photographer, she has a rare disease that will shortly take her eyesight – but the only sense in which she comes alive is in her bizarre obsession with Bea. My problem was really two-fold: 1) I didn’t like Luna, found her creepy, and didn’t trust her version of reality and 2) we only get Luna’s point of view and nothing in the story really challenges that POV, which left me feeling off-kilter.
If the book had dialed down the depiction of Bea as a magical fairy of goodness and light *or* if it acknowledged that Luna was cuckoo for cocoa puffs where Bea was concerned, I’d be able to judge it more fairly. As it is, that aspect of the story cast a pall over everything else for me. Because it was still readable and the twists were decent, I’ll give this a C.