Book review: The Redemption of Morgan Bright by Chris Panatier

(courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

This novel will be published by Angry Robot Books on 23 April 2024 in U.K. and by Penguin Books Australia on 30 July 2024.

Grief, as many of us know, can be a dark and terrifying place.

Suddenly so much of what we know and loved, who we knew and loved to be more precise much of the time, is ripped almost violently from our hands and all the old certainties, which included this person or circumstance, and we simply don’t know how to go forward.

For many of us, that’s where it stops; we stumble around disoriented for a while until life, in its newly diminished form, resumes in some form that somehow sort of works, but for others, like the titular protagonist, in Chris Panatier’s third luminously intense novel, The Redemption of Morgan Bright, grief demands some sort of action, some way of taking concrete steps to make the death or loss seem meaningful.

Morgan is someone who needs to redeem a great many things, among them a life blighted by parental neglect, abuse of a variety of substances and an abrogation of many of adulthood’s requirements which has seen her careen to rehab and out again like a pinball racing for some sort of slot but missing it every time.

Throughout her misadventures in abuse-truncated adulthood, Morgan has been saved more times than she can count by her responsible, loving older sister Hadleigh who has been there in a significant number of ways, morally and financially, being the caring, supportive adult than Morgan needs and upon which she has come to rely.

On top of my flaring hunger, the oddly paired food charmed me. Disarmed me. Looking back, I’m certain that this was their purpose – to lull me, to get me to drop my guard so that I would be malleable and more easily controlled. Yet it was so exquisite, so gloriously presented, that I didn’t even care that I succumbed to their designs. That, and I didn’t need to be controlled. Now that I was here, I had resolved to be a willing participant.

It’s a system, albeit a bruised and highly dysfunctional one, that works; that is, until Hadleigh is found dead on a road leading from the remote and scarily strange Hollyhock Asylum with no ready explanation for her means of death.

The asylum, now under supposedly new enlightened management which eschews the cold, heartless brutalism of old in favour of an Earth Mother kumbaya approach, maintains it has no idea what happened, but Morgan begs to differ and with the help of an old mutual friend of hers and Hadleigh’s, is checked into Hollyhock under an assumed name and persona, that of a meek, submissive housewife named Charlotte Turner, to get to the bottom of what happened to her sister.

She has it all planned out and while she’s nervous, and who wouldn’t be because Hollyhock gives off seriously unhinged vibes beyond all the motherhood statements and smiling faces of management, she’s confident she’s tough and strong enough to hold it all together and summon forth justice for Hadleigh.

That is, until Hollyhock starts doing some seriously creepy, dark and horrific things to her and her grip on reality, and she finds that her made-up guise of Charlotte is somehow taking on a life of her own by means that Morgan can’t even guess at, and which might just erase her creator completely.

But getting out of Hollyhock is a hell (and that words matters here) of a lot harder than getting in, and as The Redemption of Morgan Bright progresses, reality begin to twist and weave in some truly unnerving ways and Morgan wonders if she will, in fact, even make it out alive.

(image courtesy Angry Robot Books)

If that sounds seriously dark, it is; the one thing The Redemption of Morgan Bright isn’t, is a walk through a brightly lit and sunny park towards fluffy rabbits and kittens and nursery rhymes written across rainbows.

BUT, if horror is not your thing necessarily, and it is not this reviewer’s who’s not ashamed to say he read this brilliantly conceived and superbly written novel solely during daylight hours, it’s still definitely worth your time picking up the book and diving into it.

Because while there is some black bottomless abyss stuff going on here and Hollyhock hides demonic everything just beyond prying eyes, its dastardly deeds cloaked by PR speak, pretty weasel words and smiling visages, what sits at the heart of The Redemption of Morgan Bright is grief.

Grief pure and simple, not just that carried by Morgan’s but by a number of other key characters in a story, and it’s grief and the way it is handled differently by various people by powers this exceptionally rich and emotionally powerful novel from scarily expectant start to a wholly satisfying though not necessarily conclusive finish.

People do strange things in the grip of grief, including pretending to be a mental patient and while you can well understand why certain people do what they do to deal with that grief, The Redemption of Morgan Bright makes it abundantly clear that all not reactions to grief are created equal, or sanely for that matter.

Even as it congeals into vaguely organic shapes and takes to squirming on the plate, I eat and I eat. Every bleb-covered chunk, every grit-filled node, each unidentifiable, shuddering thing. I devour as my throat revolts and my stomach clenches. To prove I am worthy of her attention. To show I can take any challenge she sets before me. To make her proud.

The Redemption of Morgan Bright will absolutely tear at your very heart but you will find much in it to relate to, especially when it comes to who has the right to control a woman’s body.

Quite how that manifests in the novel, and yes, the italicised word has been used quite deliberately, must be left to the reading because of hugely immense and terrifyingly intense spoilers, but suffice to say, Panatier, with the superbly-realised skill of a seasoned writer (which frankly he has possessed right from the start of his published career – see The Phlebotomist and Stringers), weaves some timely and persuasively important messaging into the novel in such an elegant way that the pellmell, emotion-soaked story carries what it has to say with the same tenacity and truthfulness as Morgan herself.

If there was ever a novel to convince the horror-averse that here is a genre worth exploring, if no other reason than the rich, moving vein of raw humanity running through it, then its The Redemption of Morgan Bright, a novel which is scary, sure, but which is even more so a deeply affecting and richly brought alive meditation on grief, loss and the terrifying lengths people will go to remake life.

You can’t do that, of course, but no one has told the people with which Morgan comes into contact, and as this searingly propulsive novel barrels forward, it becomes clearer still that though we wish we could turn back time and erase the cause of our grief, that’s simply not possible, and that even if it were (and some freakily unsettling people think it is), it might unleash many more monsters than it actually, ultimately, puts to rest.

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