Title: Burn Our Bodies Down
Author: Rory Power
Genre: Horror, Mystery, YA
How to keep a fire burning.
How to stitch a fight up until it’s only a scar.
That’s the kind of thing you learn with a mother like mine.
Mostly, though, you learn how to be loved without proof.
Margot Nielsen doesn’t know anything about her family. She lives with a mother that feels absent, and their relationship is strained at best. There are moments of tenderness, but they are rare and fleeting, and Margot has learned that the wrong word can destroy them in the blink of an eye.
But she wants something more. She wants a past and family to belong to, and when she finds an old picture that points her to a city called Phalene, she knows what to do.
In Phalene, it takes the locals only a look to guess her last name, and that wins her wary looks all around. Her grandmother is well known and not exactly loved, and the corn fields belonging to her look sickly. Despite everything, when she steps in the old family house, Margot feels like she can finally fill the void left by her mother’s secrets. She has no idea of just how many more are waiting for her within those walls.
A closer look
The story centers on Margot, the seventeen-year-old protagonist, her mother Josephine and her grandmother, Vera. There are a couple other characters as well – Tess, Eli, officer Connors – but none of them has nearly as much space as the Nielsen family. Which is fair, since the whole premise of the book is Margot finding out about her family’s past.
The story is filtered through the eyes of Margot. She’s not likeable, in my opinion; she desperately wants to belong, even when that leads her to make the wrong choices. Her desire to be part of a family together with her mother is perpetually frustrated; they can’t seem to find a way to communicate and every little thing is reason enough for a fight.
The reasons for her mother’s shortcomings become evident when we meet Vera Nielsen, Margot’s grandmother. She first appears like a strong willed but sweet woman, but it’s clear from the start that she’s hiding something. Asking questions brings about the same results as it did with her mother: a wall of silence. And her grandmother has her own way of showing her displeasure when Margot steps out of place. Even though she knows that this is just another kind of toxic relationship, Margot can’t help her desire to please her grandmother, to hear her say that they are a family, that she belongs.
Margot is a well fleshed-out character, but even she fell flat at times for me. The true strength of the author lies in the interactions between the characters, especially with Margot’s family. The subtle mix of half-said things, of misunderstandings, of wanting to hurt with words and feeling bad about it, of frustration and anger, is extremely well done.
None of the other characters has too much depth: they are more background noise than anything else. Aside from her family – and her grandmother in particular – Tess is the only other character with whom the protagonist interacts more than three times.
The setting is excellent. The small town in the middle of its decline, the unease with which everyone steps around the name ‘Nielsen’, the weird corn on the farm that looks dead but keeps growing, everything contributes to a feeling of foreboding that permeates the atmosphere of the whole novel. From the moment Margot steps into Phalene, we know something is going to happen. The feeling only grows stronger as we find out just how many secrets the Nielsen family is keeping, and it’s exactly the kind of spooky vibe I was expecting from this book.
The pacing is also great. The author spends the first couple of chapter introducing us to Margot and her mother, and then is just a wild ride until the end. There are no dull moments, and everything that happens from Margot’s arrival in Phalene just contributes to move the plot forward. The author gives us just the right amount of hints to keep us interested: not too much as to spoil the twists, not too little as to make us lose interest, but always enough to keep us guessing and wanting to go on. To be fair, the mystery is not so hard to imagine – barring the specifics – but the journey to get there is never boring.
So, to wrap up this seemingly endless rant: Burn Our Bodies Down is a novel with fairly good characters, really strong setting, writing and pacing, and a nice dose of well-distributed creepy. If you like old houses, family secrets, and weird corn (?), all in a spooky rural town setting, than this book is a good pick.
About the Author
Rory Power’s debut novel, Wilder Girls, came out in 2019. I read it a month or so after publication, and I remember having a little trouble getting into the writing style in the beginning. I probably had the same reading experience that I had with Burn Our Bodies Down, which is to say, I struggled to connect to the characters, but loved the overall story and the atmosphere. Both her books are in the horror/mystery genre and her ideas are absolutely fascinating. What I’m trying to say here is, she is one of the few young adult writers whose novels I truly enjoy.
Wilder Girls is about a all-female boarding school built on an island. The school is in quarantine after the Tox killed most of the teachers and caused weird bodily mutation to the students. They can’t leave the premises, because the Tox has turned the surrounding woods wild and dangerous. They sussist on government aids for food and wait for the cure, while more and more of them die. But when Byatt goes missing, Hetty risks everything to go and find her, and she realises that there’s more to their story than she could have ever thought.