Small Spaces by Sarah Epstein

The Blurb On The Back:

”We don’t pick and choose what to be afraid of.  Our fears pick us.”

Tash Carmody has been traumatised since childhood, when she witnessed her gruesome imaginary friend Sparrow lure young Mallory Fisher away from a carnival.  At the time nobody believed Tash, and she has since come to accept that Sparrow wasn’t real.  Now fifteen and mute, Mallory’s never spoken about the week she went missing.  As disturbing memories resurface, Tash starts to see Sparrow again.  And she realises Mallory is the key to unlocking the truth about a dark secret connecting them.  Does Sparrow exist after all?  Or is Tash more dangerous to others than she thinks?

You can order SMALL SPACES by Sarah Epstein from Amazon UK, or Waterstone’s.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

17-year-old Natasha ‘Tash’ Carmody lives in the small coastal town of Port Bellamy, New South Wales, Australia with her parents and 9-year-old brother, Tim.  She wants to study photography at university but has a fraught relationship with her mother, who doesn’t trust her to load the dishwasher properly, let alone move away to Melbourne and live independently.  

Her mother’s mistrust dates back to when Tash was 8-years-old and claimed to have witnessed the kidnapping of then 6-year-old Mallory Fisher.  The case drew a flurry of media coverage as Mallory disappeared from a carnival in the nearby town of Greenwillow and turned up 6 days later in a National Park, dazed and confused and unable to explain what happened to her – the experience so traumatic that she’s been mute ever since.  

Tash claimed that she saw Sparrow take the girl, but when her parents learn from her aunt Ally that Sparrow is the name of Tash’s imaginary friend and that Tash was making outlandish claims while staying with her, they figure that she’s made the claim in a twisted bid for attention.  Tasha has been seeing a therapist ever since and has come to accept that Sparrow was imaginary.  Now she’s focused on getting through high school with her best friend Sadie, staying out of the radar of the vicious Rachael Tan and trying to show her mum that she’s ready to be an adult.

Now the Fishers (who left Port Bellamy soon after Mallory was found) have returned to the town.  It’s the first time in almost 10 years that Tash has seen Mallory and her older brother, Morgan, who Tash used to be friendly with at school.  Their presence awakens memories for Tash of the events leading up to Mallory’s disappearance, including of Sparrow.  And then she starts to think that she can see him around town …  

Sarah Epstein’s debut YA thriller has a strong first half that teases a supernatural explanation for Tash’s memories of Sparrow and what happened to Mallory but Tash’s claustrophobia read as a gimmick to me and I thought the plot got a little silly once Tash starts getting the answers she wanted.  That said, Tash’s relationship with her mum is well drawn and Epstein gives her a strong narrative voice so I’d definitely read Epstein’s next book.

I’ll start with the positives.  Epstein has given Tash a very strong first person narrative voice.  I completely believed in her as a teenage girl eager to get out and make her way in the world but still wanting the approval of her distant mother, even as she resents being reliant on her.  I also enjoyed the slow reveal of her memories of her stay with her hippyish, free spirit Aunt Ally who has a tense relationship with Tash’s father.  Epstein vividly portrays the house that Ally lives in with his shadows and weird sounds, which really adds to the atmosphere so that I was already primed for something a little spooky and supernatural when she finally reveals her memories of Sparrow.  Those scenes also work well with Epstein giving Sparrow a sinister, otherworldly quality that’s threatening and childish so that you can well believe he was created from the imagination of a lonely 8 year old girl.

Tash’s friendship with Sadie, which has its ups and downs but is based on mutual loyalty is well done for the most part but I wasn’t wholly convinced when the inevitable friction breaks in during the second half as it’s so artificial.  It’s not helped by the inevitable YA teen nemesis in the form of Rachael Tan, whose animosity towards Sadie and Tash is also somewhat forced and artificial and I did roll my eyes at how she pitches her cap at Morgan.  Morgan himself is a bit of a stock romance lead there to help grease the plot to get Tash to Mallory and I think that actually Epstein could have made more of the friction here when Tash reveals that she saw Mallory disappear than she does.

Mallory is also a bit of a cypher – her mutism a convenient plot point, which I thought was a shame.  There’s also a reference to her having agoraphobia but that doesn’t really seem to go anywhere so I wasn’t sure if it was intended as a joke or not.  I was actually more interested in Tash’s Aunt Ally, who clearly doesn’t get on with Tash’s parents.  I wanted more scenes between her and Tash, both from when Tash was 8 and now that she’s 17 and confronting her past, not least because it might have made me buy into the revelations in the final quarter of the book.

And that brings me to my biggest issue with the book: after a really solid first half, the plot started to unravel for me as Epstein makes her revelations.  Without going into too many spoilers, I found the revelation as to what really happened more unbelievable than if Epstein had just gone with a supernatural explanation.  The responsible person is frankly a cartoon who loses all that slow-build sinister atmosphere that Epstein had done such a good job creating.  On top of that, Epstein basically waves away the logical inconsistencies in the person’s actions, which left me feeling disappointed and frustrated.

My criticisms aside, there was a lot here that I liked and I think Epstein is particularly good at writing a convincing YA voice and building atmosphere and tension.  On that basis, I’d definitely check out her next book.  

Thanks to Walker Books for the review copy of this book.

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