The teasing title of Iain Reid's debut novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things posits a number of unsettling questions before you've even cracked the spine. What things exactly? A relationship? An unsatisfactory state of affairs? A life? So readers’ nerves are already jangling from the outset.
Our narrator, who remains nameless throughout is, it appears, the one who wants to do the ending. She has embarked on a journey with her newish boyfriend Jake who is taking her to meet his parents – although why she wants to finish with him when he’s a sweetheart is puzzling. Their conversations are warm and witty and normal but there's a stack of stuff going on in her head which sets alarm bells ringing. Some of his mannerisms clearly get on her nerves and you begin to think maybe Jake getting dumped would be no bad thing for him.
Still as the miles of rural America roll by, the two of them pass the time with a spot of philosophical jousting. (“What if intelligence leads more to loneliness rather than fulfillment”; “We live in a sad time. Why is that?”) The amiability of their conversations is intercut with chilling asides off-scene between two rather elderly-sounding neighbours who are discussing their horror at an unspecified but thoroughly unpleasant event (“I hear they found a gas mask near the body”). You assume this is going to have some bearing on the companionable couple on their road trip but as you have begun to like them, you very much hope not.
Our narrator is further troubled by someone she christens “the Caller”. This is a telephone stalker who rings her incessantly and leaves the same baffling message each time on her phone. As if that was not bad enough, all the calls are coming from her own home. Uh oh. Could this be one of the things she's thinking of ending but hasn't figured out quite how to do it yet? Ring the police, you idiot!
The story and the journey become progressively more sinister. It is Hansel and Gretel on wheels. There are no other cars on the road, any houses are dilapidated or burnt out and the landscape is one of chilling abandonment. When the couple eventually arrive at Jake's parents' house it is in darkness, with just a whiff of woodsmoke in the air.
By now, there have been so many signposts that something ineluctably nasty lies ahead that there is no logical explanation for why these two intelligent people are still poking about in such a menacing panorama. Run, run for your lives, you want to scream. Our narrator can hear you. She's just not listening.
This is a deliciously frightening novel, Reid has a light, idiosyncratic touch but never lets his vice-like grip of suspense slacken for a second. Once finished, you will be hard pressed not to start the whole terrifying journey all over again.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid is published by Text Publishing, £10.99Reuse content