Imagine for a moment that you’re looking at yourself in a mirror. You’re noticing all of the things you don’t like about yourself, the curve of your nose, the birthmark on your cheek, the shape of your earlobes. Would you change your face, if you had the power to? Now imagine that someone else had the ability to change themselves, too: Would you trust them? They could look like your best friend, your husband–or just like you. What if they were obsessed with you? This is the premise for Stephen Lloyd Jones’s debut novel The String Diaries (Mulholland Books, 2013).
The String Diaries relates one family’s century-plus struggle with stalking and violence at the hands of a “supernatural” predator. (I use quotes here because, although the term is on the dust jacket, and could describe Jones’s creation, his text seems to indicate a biological foundation for his monster’s abilities.) The three strands (strings?) of the story span space and time, from nineteenth century Hungary, to 1970s Oxford, to a present-day location in the Welsh countryside. This is no European idyll, though: The protagonists are looking over their shoulders all the while, trying to evade a killer who can look like anyone, even one’s lover.
The String Diaries begins as Hannah, her husband, Nick, and daughter, Leah, careen down a country road in a remote corner of Wales. It’s the middle of the night, they’re being pursued, and Nick is dying: His blood is everywhere. Hannah needs to get to the “safe house” the family established for just such contingencies. What’s going on is, at this point, not exactly clear. Jones immediately hooks the reader by dropping her into the thick of the action. The reader has questions, but few answers–only those hints Jones drops in the context of Hannah’s flight. The chapter breaks as the family arrives at the farmhouse, in which their enemy may or may not be waiting. As early as the first chapter, Jones demonstrates his skill with pacing, grabbing the reader with action and reeling her in by creating tension: What, if anything, lurks in the darkened farmhouse? The next chapter picks up another thread of the story, a cliffhanging agony the reader happily endures.
It’s difficult to go into detail about the other plot lines without divulging “spoilers.” Suffice it to say that Jones teases the reader along, jumping from now to nineteenth century Budapest, now to 1970s Oxford, providing the readers the answers she craves at just the right pace. The part of the story set in Hungary, of course, is deep background, the “origin story” for the tragedy that unfolds over the next century. The chapters set in Oxford bridge the gap between the past and present. There is a danger, with such a structure, of unevenness, of one story line being weaker than the others. The author risks boring the reader or even losing her. Fortunately, Jones demonstrates an intuitive knack for pace and plot, and, if the story lags in spots, especially in those chapters sent in the past, it’s a minor weakness. Rest assured: Jones will maintain your interest.
Jones is adept, too, when it comes to imparting upon his reader a sense of place. I’ve never been to Oxford, Wales, or France, and I certainly wasn’t around for nineteenth century Budapest, but it’s clear that Jones has either visited those locales or researched them. The detail into which Jones goes in his descriptions of the Snowdonia region of Wales are particularly well done. (Do you have your own safe house there, Mr. Jones?) There are times when Jones’s affection for his setting works to his disadvantage. At one point Hannah’s Welsh refuge seems more like a respite, a homey sojourn in the Welsh countryside. Hannah and Leah go horseback riding and enjoy a picnic with a neighbor. I suppose fleeing from a shapeshifting stalker can be tiring.
There are other problems, especially with the novel’s climax. Jones introduces late in the novel elements that, if not quite deus ex machina, still seem forced, out of place. The resolution of those elements is just as offhand, although it does produce one of the novel’s most memorable scenes. (Recall the Nazi’s melting face from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.) There is, during the same scenes, a glaring hole in the plot, dependent upon the “supernatural” powers exhibited by the villain and his ilk. It’s an obvious question, the sort that causes readers to pause and think, “Wait, why wouldn’t so and so…” but Jones ignores it, which is, perhaps, better than going through contortions in order to explain it away. The ending, if not altogether satisfying, ably wraps up the novel’s loose ends.
Many reviews have compared The String Diaries to Elizabeth Kostova’s 2005 novel The Historian, and with good reason: Both novels involve supernatural (or what might as well be supernatural) villains, span decades, and are set in lovely European locales. The String Diaries, though, is less a “supernatural thriller” than it is a suspense novel with supernatural elements. In another incarnation, The String Diaries might have been, sans its fantastical aspects, a straightforward spy novel or thriller. Still, Jones’s choices work. If not a perfect novel, The String Diaries is a strong debut from a promising new author. Recommended for fans of suspense novels and thrillers, especially those readers who appreciate a touch of magic in their stories.