The story, which was published as The Man Who Loved Lions in the UK, begins with a very excited and determined Ann Sherborne going for a reunion of the Sullied Souls club, which 7 years ago consisted of her and six others who all attended the same biology lectures at college, though meetings were no more debauched than drinking alcohol and discussing the world’s problems. Over the past 7 years she has been out of touch with the others due to being outside of the country taking care of her father on various engineering projects in out of the way places. The group didn’t really know much about each other personally and it is easy to tell that Ann is looking back on the group with rose tinted glasses. They all met at Richard’s uncle’s house, the Ganges, which is in a semi-rural area. The leader of the group was Richard, who was older than the others and known for his caustic manner. Ann and the others had a complicated relationship with Richard, being simultaneously in awe and in fear of him. Ann says she ‘could believe anything of’ him and that they ‘were all… rather afraid of Richard,’ though ‘he helped to make the thrill.’
However, the main reason Ann is looking forward to the reunion is that she wants to see one particular member again, Stephen, who she has always been in love with. Yet from the very beginning of her journey to the Ganges, things are not as Ann imagined them to be. Some of this is the usual disillusionment one can have when returning to places and people of the past, but then some of it isn’t. Something decidedly sinister seems to be going on at the Ganges. The sinister atmosphere is heightened by the fact that Richard’s uncle, Benjamin, has his own private zoo, which is not popular with the locals due to the accidents which seemed to be happening there. Walking through a zoo at night is unnerving to say the least and has its own kind of terrors. It appears there is one unsuccessful marriage within the group between John and Isabella, though it seems Isabella’s heart is consumed by another group member. Both John and Richard try to get Ann to leave, saying the reunion has been cancelled because of Richard’s dying uncle and Richard finally gets her off on a bus. Yet undeterred Ann makes her way back to the Ganges and comes across Benjamin, who seems far from death’s door. Re-entering as Benjamin’s guest to join his dinner party the games really do begin, with Ann striving to wait for and find Stephen, whilst also trying to work out what Richard is up to. Death is in the air that night but the question is for whom? But is this the right question to resolve the mystery? There is more than one near death experience in store for the characters and plenty of times for them to visit the zoo exhibits by torchlight, a setting White uses deftly to maintain tension before bringing her novel to a close with a surprise.
Settings have always been one of White’s strong points as she selects ones suited to her gothic hued writing skills. The zoo at night time is a brilliant example of this, full of unknown terrain, unsettling noises and dangerous animals. It also doesn’t help when certain characters lie about where these animals are. The story is also set contemporary to publication and the war does have a role to play in the story, not least adding to the darkness of the surroundings.
Characterisation is also something I have felt White is good at and this book does not suggest otherwise. How the characters mix and interact with each other is a key element, with White psychologically probing them throughout. Unsurprisingly her characters are complex, especially the sinister and Machiavellian Richard who is partially a product of his warped home environment and uncomfortable relationship with his uncle. It is not always easy to dole out sympathy due to the way the characters develop. The female characters were very good in my opinion as they included such a wide variety of types, and members of the Sullied Souls club, such as Victoria and Ann have had more interesting careers and life experiences. Furthermore, although Ann is compelled by her love for Stephen to continue staying at the Ganges, exposing herself to a number of dangers in true gothic heroine fashion, becoming enmeshed in Richard’s diabolical web, she actually a resourceful woman, who doesn’t need a man to rescue her (not that there is really one available to be honest).
I think this story had a very good premise and on the whole was well told. The addition of the zoo was a good one, adding a very sinister novelty, offering more unusual ways of getting killed. Definitely not a book to read by torchlight. Although unfortunately I think the plot was slightly overdrawn and either needed more stimulus to sustain the terror or needed to be shortened, as White is good at making things eerie and sinister but in the middle of the book this eeriness does come across as bit vague. I think Ann needed to become aware of the sinister plot afoot more quickly to give the subsequent dramas a more specific form of terror. Furthermore, despite the ending being a big surprise, I’m not sure it was the most effective one or perhaps it was not as effectively written as it could have been, as the dramatic event happens offstage and the final pages feels a little anticlimactic. Consequently I had to lower my rating for the book, which was a shame as White is overall a very good story teller, with her use of setting, writing style and characterisation. Still definitely worth a read though, unless you have your own private zoo, then maybe not…
She Faded Into Air (1941)