To start off – I am SO SORRY that this review took so long, Claret Press. They kindly sent me an ARC of Sarah Gray’s Half Life months and months ago, and I’ve only just now got around to reading it. However, this post is the chance to redeem myself!
Half Life is a triplet of supernatural stories which journey to worlds that linger between life and death. Fear, disappointment and loneliness permeate these worlds, forcing each character to face up to the dark side of human existence.
In the heart of the deep dark Scandinavian forests, an alluring supernatural creature drains Henry Scott of his life force. In danger of becoming a desperate ghost lost to the forest, he must fight to find his way back home. Recently deceased at the age of thirty-six, Adelaide Anderson discovers that being a ghost is as disappointing as being alive. Angry and disillusioned, she takes extreme measures
to live the life she deserves. Jimmy is the god of anxiety and depression. Frustrated at his low status, he steals a Scythe from his brother, Death. When he kills Rachel,
it gives her a relief from the pain of living, but for Jimmy, facing Death is more than his life is worth.
I’ve never read a short story collection quite like Half Life. It is made up of three longer short stories: Half Life, the Heart of a Heartless World, and Killing Rachel. I really enjoyed this particular format, because it allowed Gray to really explore these particular worlds that she’d created, whilst also allowing her to show to the reader the variety of her writing. I think this would appeal to a lot of people – it allows lovers of short stories like me to be impressed by her variety, but also has longer stories for those who normally read novels.
Because there were only three stories, I’m going to review each individually.
- Half Life: the titular story is about Adelaide, a woman who has recently died from a terminal illness. It is implied this is perhaps similar to Gray’s own chronic illness, MND (Motor Neurone Disease). The story goes backwards and forwards before and after, comparing how she coped with her impending death to how she is now coping as a ghost. She chooses to haunt her sister and her niece, clinging onto her niece’s life as if it were her own. Sometimes it was a little difficult to determine what was past and what was present, but I think that was done on purpose – which exactly was Adelaide’s half life? The one where she was alive but focused on death, or the one after her death where she could give into her deepest desires.
- The Heart of a Heartless World: this story is written as a Victorian pamphlet. This was set out on the page as if it was a piece of Victoriana, which I thought was pretty cool. However, it was a hard to read with my Kindle. In it, Henry Scott, an aspiring scientist, travels into the deep woods of Scandinavia to discover new plants. Instead, he discovers a dangerous supernatural woman who enraptures him nearly to the point of death. (This story has a trigger warning for sexual assault.)
- Killing Rachel: I think this was my favourite of all the stories. Jimmy, god of anxiety and depression, steals his brother Death’s scythe, and accidentally kills a girl named Rachel. He takes her up to the god realm, and tells her that she is in limbo. This was absolutely fascinating – this realm is full of greenhouses filled with plants that are now extinct (because dead flowers and plants need to go somewhere too!) This is an afterworld that takes in all religions, both past and present – Demeter, Jesus and Odin are all mentioned. Jimmy’s powers are particularly interesting to me, as he explains his presence in the world is needed to balance out everyone’s lives, causing panic attacks, depression, and other sorts of mental illness.
Overall, I thought this was an extremely unique anthology of short stories, not only in terms of format but the stories themselves. Life and death are constantly in flux, and Gray explores them both in increasingly fascinating and thought-provoking ways.
NB: I counted Half Life for the Disabled MC in SFF in the Diversity Bingo 2017 for the chronic illness and panic attacks. Gray has MND (Motor Neurone Disease) so this is an own voices book.