The Sanatorium – Sarah Pearse

‘The figure is dressed in black. Something is covering their face. It resembles a gas mask; the same basic form, but it’s missing the filter at the front. Instead, there’s a thick rubber hose running from nose to mouth. A connector. The hose is ribbed, black; it quivers as the figure shifts from foot to foot. The effect is horrifying. Monstrous.’

I’ll admit that there were times when I didn’t think I was brave enough to finish this – it’s hard to read when you’ve got your hands over your eyes. But I did carry on past some of the most chilling scenes – the old oxygen masks create a horrifying steam-punk gothic trauma – and I’m very glad I did – this is a superbly plotted, twists-at-every-turn thriller with a heavy dose of fear on top. The use of an old Sanatorium in the Alps, newly refurbished as a top-class hotel but one inaccessible in bad weather, is an inspired setting, allowing the author to bring in the very darkest of medical history and to instil that unnerving sense of there being something not quite right in the corners of our minds. There’s also a strong reminder of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None when we become aware that character after character are disappearing in what should be a closed environment.

Elin and her partner have arrived at the newly gleaming Le Sommet spa hotel to celebrate her brother’s engagement. Elin has her own reasons for wanting to see her estranged brother, however, and it’s clear from the beginning that their childhood has cast long shadows over their relationship. Elin is a police detective on a break; a recent investigation has left her doubting her judgement and fragile in herself. The striking architectural decisions made about the hotel amplify her discomfort, and Pearse does a brilliant job of making the glass walls and large windows actually heighten a sense of growing claustrophobia.

The Sanatorium is not my usual read, but my curiosity was piqued by the noise about this debut novel on social media. It’s an excellent read and I will definitely pick up Pearse’s next one. I just need to read something calm and middle-brow in between to lower my pulse rate.

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