A little over a year ago on this here blog I raved about Bushnell’s debut novel, The Weirdness, and it’s taken me a while to get my crapola together and review his second book (which actually came out not long after I reviewed the first book). But the important thing is that I AM getting to it, and that I’m sharing it with you. Better late than never, as they say…
I am happy to say that Bushnell does not suffer from the dreaded “sophmore slump.” However, The Insides is decidedly different in tone than his first book. The Weirdness was more of a dark comedy with some slight horror elements, but The Insides is overall a darker tale. This is not to say it is devoid of humor, as there are some great character moments that bring the laughs, but these moments serve to balance out the human drama and darkly fantastical moments that take up the bulk of this book.
The protagonist is a woman named Ollie who once dabbled in magic (and was apparently quite proficient in her craft), but eventually abandoned it and started a family (a family she is now estranged from). Her life mostly consists of working in a butcher shop, engaging in relationships that some might deem inappropriate, and hanging out with her long-time friend/now roommate Victor, yet she is soon thrust into a world of magic and strangeness again due to a coworker named Guychardson and a peculiar knife he possesses. Ollie can’t shake her attraction to the knife, and she soon learns it has powers that threaten the fabric of reality, powers that make her wish she had never known of its existence.
Meanwhile, a psychic named Maja has been hired to track down this same knife. And she’s teamed up with an ex-marine who wears a pig mask (and goes by the handy name of “Pig”) and seems to subsist solely on sugary candy. Though I think most of the primary characters are interesting and well fleshed out, it is Maja who I find most fascinating, for a couple of reasons. First, I love how she is so stoic and calculating about her abilities. And though she often abhors the guilt by association she endures to survive, her bottom line is earning her pay (though she is also haunted by a violent act she was involved in long ago, which gives her sympathetic depth). Secondly, I truly enjoyed her relationship with Pig, as their personalities couldn’t have been more different, and their scenes were often like that of a buddy cop movie gone terribly wrong. But I commend Bushnell for creating two women who are very strong and diverse. I’m certainly no woman, but it never felt like I was reading “male writes female characters.” I was invested these women and their motives and lives.
Though the magical world pervades the novel more and more as the pages turn (with a mind-bending and horror-ish climax being the highlight of the book), it is only one element of a complex story that is ultimately about relationships and regret. The Insides succeeds because it never sacrifices heart for strangeness but instead finds a happy medium between the two.