Title: The String Diaries
Author: Stephen Lloyd Jones
Published: 4 July 2013; my edition published 1 July 2014
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: fantasy, thriller
The story of The String Diaries is set across three time periods. In the present, Hannah Wilde drives frantically through the night to a remote safehouse in Snowdonia, Wales. Her husband Nate is bleeding to death on the seat beside her, and their daughter Leah is asleep in the back. It’s now Hannah’s responsibility to keep them safe from Jakab, a monstrous man who has hunted her family for over a century.
In 1979 in Oxford, Professor Charles Meredith meets a beautiful young woman studying Hungarian history. He finds himself inexplicably captivated by her, only to find that she’s spent her life running from an old enemy described in a collection of diaries bound up in string.
In 1873 in Hungary, an awkward boy from a wealthy family resists the demands of his birthright. He is “hosszú életek”, one of a race of aristocratic shape-shifters blessed with longevity and other supernatural skills. For some reason, he’s always struggled to use his powers, and he knows that he will be disgraced in front of his peers at their coming-out ceremony. He chooses to break away from the path laid out for him, with brutal consequences.
At the start, The String Diaries is a tense thriller. We’re given lots of intriguing little hints about the underlying mystery, and the villain Jakab has a terrifying power – he can take the form of any person. Hannah and her family have learned to ask questions to verify people’s identities, but it’s hard to keep your guard up all the time. If a friend goes out of sight for even a few minutes, it might be Jakab who comes back, wearing their face. He could do all sorts of terrible things by posing as an ally, and one of the scariest possibilities involves him killing a loved one and taking their place. There’s also a bit of plot in the backstory that I quite liked, about how Jakab’s actions turned Hungarian society against the hosszú életek, leaving a trail of dark stories in the folklore.
The hosszú életek is a great idea for a thriller and the novel works pretty well with it for a while, but the more we learn, the less exciting it becomes. When Jakab’s motives are revealed about halfway through the book, the tension starts to dissipate until there’s nothing left. By the end, I was thoroughly bored.
I had a lots of problems with the story. Firstly, Jakab’s motives are unconvincing. The entire thing started with the loss of his first love and somehow develops into a crazy attempt to reclaim the happy life he had for just a couple of months. It’s hard to believe that this was enough to drive Jakab to torment a family for over a century, because another problem is that he doesn’t get much time on the page, and we don’t have a proper understanding of his psychology. He does some terrible things and then feels bad about them, but the boy who commits the acts and the one who feels guilty don’t seem like quite the same character. He goes from being a troubled boy to an obsessive psychopath, and exactly how this happened is left to your imagination. It’s one thing to go a little loopy after losing your first love and another to stalk, torture, murder and rape people because of it. As a reader you just have to accept that Jakab is a nutjob and get on with the book. Personally, I find villains who are just generically crazy to be pretty boring. I prefer to get inside their heads and get intimately acquainted with their madness.
But Jakab’s backstory ends far earlier than I expected it to and we’re left only with the vague and insipidly evil modern version. He’s scary at first, but gets increasingly dull. His powers should make him terrifying, the way he uses them is not as impressive as I thought it could be. One of the characters says she thinks Jakab is getting better at what he does, but on the contrary I think he’s crap. Even if he spends ages studying someone well enough to imitate them, he almost never manages to keep up the persona for more than a few hours. Usually he gives himself away with a stupid mistake. I was expecting some brilliant and unnerving twist where it’s revealed that Jakab has been hiding in plain sight for ages or something, but he’s not nearly that clever. It’s more like Jakab’s greatest power is his insane capacity for relentless pursuit, with his abilities to shift and heal himself as added extras.
As a result, the story degenerates into a more mundane thriller. It’s also bogged down by an excess of personal drama and unnecessary detail. I got tired of hearing how difficult it is for Hannah to keep her husband and daughter safe, how much she loves them and will do anything for them, how much she wants to kill Jakab, etc.
Towards the end, Jones incorporates this totally pointless subplot that adds nothing to the story but a few more guns. Then, at the climax, he starts pulling all sorts of silly tricks out of a hat to achieved the desired outcome. Which, I probably don’t need to say, was disappointing. To add to that I’ve got lots of little niggles, like sloppy writing, contrivances, flat characters and cheesy expressions of emotion. Overall, it didn’t come close to being the thriller I was expecting.