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No ordinary psychological thriller: Diane Awerbuck reviews The Apartment by SL Grey

By Diane Awerbuck for in the Sunday Times

No ordinary psychological thriller: Diane Awerbuck reviews The Apartment by SL Grey

The ApartmentThe Apartment
SL Grey (Pan Macmillan)

Horror is supposed to come in two kinds: the evil from somewhere else that attacks you for no reason (Dracula; The Ring; Stranger Things), and the evil that was always inside you, biding its time (The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; The Shining). SL Grey’s newest offering merges the two types of evil in the seamless and terrifying The Apartment.

SL Grey is a collaboration between Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg. The novel plays on that particularly South African fear with its peculiarly American name: the home invasion – a burglary that’s often accompanied by torture. While the family in The Apartment escapes any really bloody showdown with their physical attackers, the guilt and shame of the father, Mark, manifests itself in a far creepier way. The attack triggers his latent post-traumatic stress over the unrelated death of his first daughter years ago, and he spends the rest of the book finding ways to get rid of his new family.

When Mark and Steph, his ex-student and current wife, do a house swap so they can get away from it all, they go to Paris – but the French couple has mysteriously disappeared and they end up coming home with more baggage than they reckoned on. “I’m sorry it had to be you,” damaged people keep telling them, and the sense of their destiny and doom permeates the book.

It plays on the eternal question asked by victims and survivors: Why me? The answer, according to SL Grey, is because you were there. That’s pretty chilling; it sets up a universe deaf to pleading, one from which there is no escape. Evil is just the agent of some greater, impersonal revenge, and no amount of therapy will fix it.

This has come to be the underlying theme of SL Grey’s output. The Mall, The Ward, The New Girl and Under Ground are all satisfyingly gory, but here the style has matured; the language is more elegant, more precise. The Apartment is primarily a psychological thriller, and it touches some other nerve entirely: personal safety is just the beginning.

The novel ratchets up the uneasiness from the beginning, and it’s a compelling slow burner. Take this domestic scene: “I pick out the soap and turn on the hand shower to rinse the tub. The water’s draining slowly, blocked by Hayden’s hair in a drain hole. I pick it out and it comes away in a satisfying mat; it shines with a blue gleam, full of life. I can’t bring myself to throw it away so I squeeze the water out and take it with me.”

What SL Grey excel at is the intersection of traditional horror tropes (the murdered girl bent on revenge; hanks of bloodied hair) with familiar South African details: in a comic scene with tragic consequences, a white sangoma named Marlies comes to cleanse the house, for example. It is in Paris, the romance capital of the world, that Mark finds out first-hand what he always tells his students, that “the construct of polite society is the flimsiest veneer that covers a cesspool of abuse and corruption”.

The Apartment turns out to be very close to home.

The MallThe WardThe New GirlUnder Ground


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