REVIEW: Black Sheep by Rachel Harrison
Nobody has a “normal” family, but Vesper Wright’s is truly…something else. Vesper left home at eighteen and never looked back—mostly because she was told that leaving the staunchly religious community she grew up in meant she couldn’t return. But then an envelope arrives on her doorstep.
Inside is an invitation to the wedding of Vesper’s beloved cousin Rosie. It’s to be hosted at the family farm. Have they made an exception to the rule? It wouldn’t be the first time Vesper’s been given special treatment. Is the invite a sweet gesture? An olive branch? A trap? Doesn’t matter. Something inside her insists she go to the wedding. Even if it means returning to the toxic environment she escaped. Even if it means reuniting with her mother, Constance, a former horror film star and forever ice queen.
When Vesper’s homecoming exhumes a terrifying secret, she’s forced to reckon with her family’s beliefs and her own crisis of faith in this deliciously sinister novel that explores the way family ties can bind us as we struggle to find our place in the world.
Dear Ms. Harrison,
I’m not usually one for horror. I don’t like horror movies and don’t watch them (a coworker also hates them but watches them for the delicious thrill of being scared shitless by them). I rarely read books with the label but after checking out the excerpt for “Black Sheep” something compelled me to give it a whirl. Vesper Wright learns an important lesson. Not “you can’t go home again” but in her case “you shouldn’t go home again.”
Vesper is making a life for herself (working in the food service industry which involves wearing a crappy green polo shirt and singing the Shortee’s birthday song) after running away from home shortly before her eighteenth birthday. Geographically she didn’t go that far from the remote farm in southern New Jersey where she was raised along with friends and family and the other (relatively few) members of the religious cult in which she was raised. Once you leave, that’s it. But after an awful night at work (double shift and a table of obnoxious bros), she staggers home to find a wedding invitation. At first she’s gutted to see that it’s for her (former) first love and her (former) best friend. The handwritten note clinches it though – she’s just got to go back.
Arriving at the homestead (old house, old barn, old worship facilities) in the midst of the rehearsal dinner, Vesper is surprised by how welcoming people are, including the bride and groom with whom she Has History. Vesper’s mother – scream queen actress Constance – is her usual dismissive, cold self. Well, Vesper didn’t really expect that to be any different.
The wedding is planned to a T and Vesper has to go along with the religious stuff in order to attend (they’re that strict) but she’s stunned when a certain guest arrives for the wedding dinner. Then she’s gobsmacked at who people think this person is. Then she flees again only to be reeled back into the madness. Will Vesper get to the bottom of her relationship with these people? And will she survive it?
Sadly, the early sarcasm is soon abandoned. I liked how the book serves up some faux horror in the various movie props that Constance has accumulated over the course of her career and which she insists on displaying all over the house. Growing up with that must have been difficult. The true nature of the cult is revealed suddenly and with – dare I say? – glee. I’ll try not to spoil things and will admit that I had read some reviews that hinted enough to give me an idea of what to expect but it still took me aback to see it in black and white. Yes, I know devotees actually exist but the people in the book are devoted.
Faux horror gently slides into the realms of discomfort as Vesper remembers her upbringing – something she had just thought of as “normal” while growing up. That’s bad enough but the toxic relationship she has with her mother is another form of awful. Is it better to have a Mommy Dearest or a mother who ignores you when she can and makes it clear she wants little or nothing to do with you when she can’t? Another uncomfortable thing for me was
Things get real at the end. And by “get real” I mean get messy and horrid. Since the book is told in first person POV, it’s clear that one person survives after things go to hell in a handcart but this person will have scars (real and mental) for life and a whole lot to discuss with a therapist (which happens). Vesper might be seen by some readers as unlikeable (her co-workers call her Your Highness) but she gets shit done and often others don’t like this sort of person. There were a few times when I thought, “Really, Vesper? How could you be this naive about your life?” I enjoyed the book but I’m still not someone who is going to go looking to read horror books. B