Review

The Possession of Mr. Cave

by Matt Haig

In Matt Haig’s two previous novels for adults, THE DEAD
FATHERS CLUB and THE LABRADOR PACT, the author skillfully utilized
naïve narrators. In both cases, he successfully allowed the
reader to use his or her more sophisticated knowledge to fill in
the gaps in understanding left by those telling the stories --- in
one case a child, in the other a dog. In THE POSSESSION OF MR.
CAVE, his third book for adults, Haig does much the same thing. In
this case, however, the narrator is far from innocent. Instead,
Haig relies on readers to fill in the gaps of credibility and logic
left by the growing instability of a most unreliable narrator.

THE POSSESSION OF MR. CAVE takes the form of a book-length
letter written by the title character to his 15-year-old daughter,
Bryony (called Petal affectionately), whom he addresses in the
second person throughout the novel. The book opens with a
bloodcurdling scream, as Terence Cave and Bryony become witness to
the accidental death of Bryony’s twin brother Reuben. Reuben,
who has always been a troubled boy, afflicted with a large
birthmark and plagued by the teasing of other kids his age, has
also never been his father’s favorite (as the reader learns
gradually during Mr. Cave’s narrative). But when Reuben
fatally falls from a light post after attempting a daredevil stunt
in front of a group of local boys, Mr. Cave falls into a sort of
madness.

Terence Cave is no stranger to death --- his mother died when he
was a small boy, and his wife lost her life during a robbery when
their children were babies. But in the wake of Reuben’s
death, Mr. Cave becomes increasingly obsessed with protecting the
one person he still holds dear: Bryony. Bryony is a beautiful girl,
though, right on the border of womanhood, and her loveliness has
attracted the attention of several neighborhood boys --- namely
one, Denny, who was part of the gang goading on Reuben during that
fateful night.

Convinced that Denny has designs to hurt Bryony one way or
another, desperate not to lose his daughter to a most unsuitable
boy, Mr. Cave grows increasingly desperate --- following Bryony to
parties and clubs, lurking outside her school or her friends’
houses to catch her in the act of deception, finally locking her in
the attic for her own protection. Cave seems determined to freeze
Bryony in time --- at the point in her life before Reuben’s
death, when she was an innocent, bright, creative girl whose main
interest was playing the cello --- and to lock her away the same
way he might put one of the antiques in his shop behind glass. Mr.
Cave is convinced his increasingly violent mind is being controlled
by the unsettled spirit of his dead son, but the real question is
who’s possessing whom.

Matt Haig’s previous novels have hardly been light, sunny
affairs, but in THE POSSESSION OF MR. CAVE, his writing turns
darker than ever. At times, the theme (which plays on the dual
meanings of the word “possession”) can seem
heavy-handed, but the near-compulsive emphasis on having, holding,
keeping and protecting aptly reflects Cave’s troubled state
of mind. Haig effectively brings readers into Cave’s unstable
interior world, asking them to inhabit this closed-off, deeply
unreliable space along with their narrator. Sometimes the intensity
of the novel can feel claustrophobic, but the interiority only
serves to underscore Haig’s compelling, incessant exploration
of a damaged mind slowly consuming itself and everything around
it.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 19, 2011

The Possession of Mr. Cave
by Matt Haig

  • Publication Date: June 1, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction, Psychological Suspense
  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)
  • ISBN-10: 0143117300
  • ISBN-13: 9780143117308