After reading Catriona Ward’s last novel, THE LAST HOUSE ON NEEDLESS STREET (2021), I made a point to keep a steadfast eye open for any of her upcoming books. Fortunately for me and other fans of her work, a new release from Ward was announced for early this year. Ward has received high praise from acclaimed horror authors and reviewers alike, and with very good reason. The author’s twisting, high-tension psychological horror keeps the pages turning, and her intricately thought-out characters elicit a mosaic of emotions that’s difficult to articulate (in a good way). With her newest novel, SUNDIAL (2022), you get both of these qualities in spades.
SUNDIAL follows Rob, a wife and mother of two daughters, looking to escape her dark past by leading a normal life in the suburbs. When she discovers a familiar darkness in her oldest daughter Callie that includes playing with animal bones and whispering to unseen friends, Rob decides to return to her childhood home—Sundial—deep in the Mojave Desert. Rob and Callie journey into the desert together, both carrying their own secrets and unsure of what terrifying decisions lie before them. But whatever decisions they make, Rob and Callie share the same hope of protecting their family.
Ward masterfully builds suspense in this book. Once I started reading, it nearly hurt to tear myself away even for a short break. From the start you know something bad will happen very soon, but don’t know exactly when, how, or who will cause it. Each character seems to constantly teeter on the edge of violence with such subtlety that you feel like no one and nothing can be trusted, even your own gut. And the kids. One moment you think the pressure has died down, but by the next chapter you get the sense that everything is actually about to burst. This feeling of imminent danger, combined with the stark setting of the desert, creates a terrifying landscape that will pull you in.
As a fair warning, the tightly-wound tension that builds throughout the book does loosen a bit during some of Rob’s flashback scenes, which might feel like slow-reading to those who prefer fast-paced plots. But, I promise it’s worth sticking through it until the end. The details revealed in Rob’s flashbacks answer a lot of the lingering questions raised throughout the story, help us to better understand Rob’s past, and are so compellingly bizarre that, honestly, some may find them more interesting than the action-packed moments.
Like THE LAST HOUSE ON NEEDLESS STREET, we also get characters that elicit feelings of both tenderness and unease. In SUNDIAL, Ward uses alternating points of view to share the thoughts of both Rob and Callie as they venture into the desert. Through their internal monologues, Rob’s storytelling, and Callie’s conversations with her “pale” friends, we learn that they don’t trust each other but only because they desperately want to protect their family. Alternating viewpoints may not be everyone’s style, and may feel disorienting at times, but for those who don’t mind it, Ward’s use of first person narration reveals chilling details you wouldn’t know otherwise.
It’s difficult to offer too much of a synopsis or deep dive into this book, although it’s tempting since there’s so much to unpack. But revealing anything more risks too many spoilers, and I do not want to take away from anyone’s weird, winding journey into SUNDIAL. Ultimately, this book reflects on the concept of motherhood, redemption for personal and generational pasts, and the question of how far you would go to protect your family. If you’re interested in these themes and enjoy psychological horror with complex family histories, creepy kids, and strange, isolated settings as well as feeling completely uncertain about whether or not you should trust any of the characters, SUNDIAL makes for an engrossingly disturbing addition to your to-read pile from a noteworthy author.
Thank you to Tor Nightfire and NetGalley for an advanced reader copy of this book. Support your favorite local bookstore by purchasing a copy of SUNDIAL, order from bookshop.org, or request it from your local library!