Small Spaces, by Katherine Arden
Publish Date: September 25, 2018
Published by: G.P. Putnam & Sons for Young Reader
Genre: MG Paranormal
My Rating: ★☆☆☆☆ (1 out of 5 stars)
**I received this as an egalley from the publisher through Edelweiss in return for an honest review.**
After suffering a tragic loss, eleven-year-old Ollie only finds solace in books. So when she happens upon a crazed woman at the river threatening to throw a book into the water, Ollie doesn’t think–she just acts, stealing the book and running away. As she begins to read the slender volume, Ollie discovers a chilling story about a girl named Beth, the two brothers who both loved her, and a peculiar deal made with “the smiling man,” a sinister specter who grants your most tightly held wish, but only for the ultimate price.
Ollie is captivated by the tale until her school trip the next day to Smoke Hollow, a local farm with a haunting history all its own. There she stumbles upon the graves of the very people she’s been reading about. Could it be the story about the smiling man is true? Ollie doesn’t have too long to think about the answer to that. On the way home, the school bus breaks down, sending their teacher back to the farm for help. But the strange bus driver has some advice for the kids left behind in his care: “Best get moving. At nightfall they’ll come for the rest of you.” Nightfall is, indeed, fast descending when Ollie’s previously broken digital wristwatch, a keepsake reminder of better times, begins a startling countdown and delivers a terrifying message: RUN.
Only Ollie and two of her classmates heed the bus driver’s warning. As the trio head out into the woods–bordered by a field of scarecrows that seem to be watching them–the bus driver has just one final piece of advice for Ollie and her friends: “Avoid large places. Keep to small.”
And with that, a deliciously creepy and hair-raising adventure begins.
This is one of those books that I wish I had put down earlier on than I did, but because I kept thinking it might get better, I kept going. It helped that it was very short and a very quick read. But the story itself felt confusing and ungrounded, with characters that were only mildly interesting and a plot that just did not make a lot of sense.
We first meet Ollie, the protagonist of the story, who is super-smart, a self-made loner, always dreaming and imagining things and getting herself lost in books, and a little bratty to be honest. Having lost her mother to a plane crash the year before, she has lost herself in the anger stage of bereavement, and has not moved past it. Everyone still walks on eggshells around her. Her home life seems like it came out of some strange fairytale in a storybook, with a house colored like an Easter egg, a father who bakes, and a mother who took her mushroom picking for special occasions. Then, during her ordeals in the mist world, she takes action and is brave and sort of makes friends with two other kids (partially because they’re the only ones who escaped with her) and learns that “there is more to them than they appear.” She also starts to move on from her anger over her mother’s death, and by the end Ollie is basically a happy and content child who is no longer angry at the world. This character development was just way too fast and did not flow very well. There was one moment where she had to face her fear of heights, which had never been mentioned before because every time she thought of flying with her mother (who flew planes for a hobby or something?), it was with happy thoughts, not fear. But apparently she is terrified of heights, until after crossing a rickety bridge she isn’t anymore. That’s not character development, that’s just writing in hindsight – as if, while she was writing the scene, the author realized that the fact that Ollie’s mother died in a plane crash should have an impact on Ollie’s capability in dealing with heights and the prospect of falling from them.
Onto the plot. It was…strange to say the least. It had it’s scary moments, for sure, but definitely not enough to keep me on the edge of my seat the whole time. There was one point when it made me think of Over the Garden Wall, but that sadly didn’t last long. I think what was most problematic was the mythology and world-building of it all. There was so much mystery and unknown about what was happening to Ollie and her classmates, that with each new semi-revelation, things only felt more confusing. And when everything finally came to a head, I still felt like I was missing something. The idea and history behind the smiling man just felt ungrounded as a whole, with only a vague recollection of events written in a book calledSmall Spaces being the only basis for Ollie to understand that things weren’t quite right at Misty Valley Farm. Warnings were given in such confusing and unclear ways that I had no idea what was going on, and the explanations weren’t all that much better. And the climax felt kind of typical and overdone, with the triumph being a little underwhelming in how easily it came about.
This book just kind of irked me to no end. The storyline was lacking, the characters were only half-interesting, and the plotline was completely ungrounded. It felt like there needed to be more of a connection between Ollie and the smiling man somehow, or more of a general knowing that strange things happen (such as people going missing) around the farm to make a more firm basis for the mystery of the whole ordeal. It had its scary moments, sure, but between the poor character development and the confusing and incomplete-feeling plotline, I just don’t think this is a book I will be recommending.