The countryside, the near future.
Gabrielle Hunter, husband Leo and son Stefan drive to a remote luxury retreat for a spring break at the invitation of new client Art Fisher, who will be there with his wife, Polly, and daughter Fleur. As Gabrielle’s family approach the retreat, their car hits a deer. Investigating, they discover it was dying already, from a bullet wound.
The two families settle in. Stefan falls into a relaxed companionship with Fleur, while Leo finds himself drawn to Polly. Gabrielle, meanwhile, has some unresolved issues around Art.
Off-grid and away from the Areas, Leo and Art jockey for position. Subtle shifts of power are magnified. Gabrielle and Polly have their own secrets. In the garden, the fruit and vegetables ripen too early, while an unidentified shooter continues to take down animals in the wood. Stefan and Fleur seek an escape route into a Virtual Reality darkened by the shadow of war.
The family holiday that already resembles a bad dream soon turns into a waking nightmare.
The novel begins with the Hunters travelling to meet Art Fisher and his family at a luxury retreat. From the beginning, it’s clear that all is not well in the Hunter family, with Gabrielle and husband Leo at odds with one another, leaving teenage son, Stefan, sitting in the back of the car with headphones on but not listening to anything – his headphones serve to muffle the sound of his parents arguing. The tension increases as they arrive. Art is a client of Gabrielle’s, but the families don’t know each other. Art immediately tries to establish himself as the alpha male against an entirely unconcerned Leo, while the two women, Polly and Gabrielle, don’t seem to have much in common. Only Stefan and Art’s daughter, Fleur, seem to find a connection and get along with each other. The dysfunctional family dynamics add to the tension as things become increasingly strained over the course of the novel.
Set in a near-future world, The Complex alludes to a recent past in which a War took place. The who and the why of the conflict aren’t fully revealed, but there’s a sense of the War being a pivotal moment in history. Geographically, the population live in areas which are numbered rather than named for the towns and cities we’re familiar with. Technology has advanced beyond its current capabilities – everyone is now “on-grid” and robots have taken over basic jobs. For me, this all added to a sense of something being “off” for the lack of familiarity of this world – it felt as though the world as we know it has largely been forgotten having rebuilt itself anew following the War. I like the ambiguity of the setting though – it always gives me a sense that this could take place anywhere, and that I shouldn’t get too comfortable.
The novel is told through the alternating perspectives of Stefan, Leo, and Gabrielle. As they begin to explore more of the house and grounds, they each have their own unusual experiences. The events taking place all have a hallucinatory, dreamlike quality that is disorienting for the character. I don’t want to say too much, but afterwards, there’s a sense of whether their experience was partly enhanced by their own fevered imaginations. This is added to by the oddness of the house in which they’re staying. It appears to have its own climate, with unnaturally ripe fruit and vegetables available – out of season – in the garden. The events and location all add to a sense of unease that builds as the novel progresses.
This isn’t a novel that neatly wraps everything up by the time the last page is turned – Walters trusts the reader to form their own conclusions based upon what they’ve read. It reminded me of the works of J. G. Ballard, bringing to mind such works as The Drowned World and High Rise for the dreamlike nature of the narrative which slowly descends into a nightmare. It’s not a comparison I make lightly, and Walters is an author that I’ll be looking out for in the future.
The Complex is available now from Salt Publishing.