Toward the end of Jennifer McMahon’s Don’t Breath a Word, Phoebe, one of the main characters, states “But if people believe in them [fairy tales] so strongly, doesn’t that give them power, more power maybe than even the truth?”
It’s a great statement and a great idea on which to build a suspense tale. And, most of the time, the rest of the novel lives up to it.
Don’t Breathe a Word begins in the past and then moves back and forth between the past and present with different sections belonging to different characters. The sections of the past detail a children’s summer, where they talked about fairy worlds and believed (or at least wanted to believe) in Teilo, the fairy king who comes for the chosen ones. It’s all a child’s fantasy (albeit a slightly creepy one) until one of the children, Lisa, goes missing.
Fifteen years later—in the present—Sam, Lisa’s brother, lives what seems to be a relatively normal life with his girlfriend Phoebe, until they both get sucked back into the fairy world of Sam’s past.
A main strength of this book is that the reader isn’t ever really supposed to believe in fairies—there is the sense that another (more realistic but still scary) explanation exists. Certain characters may (or may not) believe in fairies, but the reader is never expected to make that leap.
Another positive is that many of the characters are well constructed and complicated. Phoebe, with her own childhood issues and secrets, provides a nice parallel to Sam. Sam’s childhood is haunted by Teilo, his father’s death, and his sister’s disappearance. Phoebe’s childhood includes an alcoholic mother and the mysterious Dark Man.
Near the end of the book, Phoebe realizes “It was a funny thing to think that she had resisted the idea of having a child because it would continue her own screwed-up family line, and now here was Sam with the same dilemma. Maybe they truly were meant for each other after all.”
Phoebe’s intrigue (as a character) is that she is very much a child herself. For example, she flees—just like a child or a sulky teenager—in apparent anguish after learning “Firstborn. Sam promised Teilo his firstborn.” A child’s belief in other worldly things seems plausible, but seeing a “normal” adult freak out over a childhood and childish pledge suggests that perhaps she is really not so normal (or not really an ‘adult’).
The opening passage refers to Phoebe as a “chipper, adventure-loving girl” (she’s 35) and notes “It had been miles since they’d even passed a house. They’d gone by overgrown fields, cow pastures, a stagnant pond, and then into thick, conifer-filled woods…Phoebe knew she should be used to it after living in Vermont for fifteen years, but she still got twitchy when didn’t know where the nearest McDonald’s was.” Upon first reading, these passages may not seem that significant, but McMahan keeps layering details. Add the McDonald’s reference to passages like “Phoebe bought Hamburger Helper, Kraft macaroni and cheese, white bread and bologna. One night they ate peanut butter and fluff sandwiches” and it’s pretty clear that grown up Phoebe has the palate of a 10-year-old.
And it’s not just her taste in food—Phoebe’s mind seems to understand children’s mentalities, as well. Sam states “Some families have shit like cancer…passed from one generation [to] the next —we’ve got malevolent stories.” And Phoebe thinks”
“It made sense in an awful way. A legend passed down from one generation to the next that made each child feel special, like they were part of something much larger, much more magical than the mundane world of friends and school and rock collections. There are fairies on the back side of the hill. Your great-grandfather was a changeling…Didn’t everyone want that?
And, in fact, part of Phoebe does: “There was some part of her—some desperate, pathetic part, dying to be special—that wished it was true that Teilo really might have chosen her to give him Sam’s firstborn.”
Phoebe seems to be part child, part neurotic, and part lost soul; she is simply a nicely layered character and reading about her is like eating a petit four—it’s both fun and potentially surprising.
Sam’s mother (eerily reminiscent of Minnie Castevet, the neighbor from Rosemary’s Baby) has some great scenes as well (again in a very creepy way)—particularly when tea and cookies are partnered with a discussion of child abduction and locked basements. And the child versions of all the characters are realistically drawn—sometimes cruel, sometimes heartbreakingly needy, sometimes naive.
Sam’s adult self, on the other hand, with his “that’s insane”, “what were you thinking” and “what the hell is going on” type-verbiage combined with his “you’ll never guess what happened” phrases seems a trifle more like a stock character. At times, though, the story needs a “you’ll never guess what happened” moment to tie some of the plot lines together, and there are a lot of plot lines. Audiences should be prepared to be a little confused and suspend their disbelief from time to time.
The ending isn’t really confusing, but it doesn’t supply many answers, either. Is Phoebe hallucinating or dreaming? Is Phoebe starting to lose her mind? Is Phoebe right—did someone steal from her? Is Sam betraying Phoebe? I’m not entirely sure what happens in the last few pages, but I didn’t mind reading the last chapter more than once, trying to figure it out.
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