I want to preface this review by admitting that I’ve been a fan of Penny Jones’ writing ever since reading her short story “Non-standard Construction” (printed in Great British Horror 2) and even after experiencing the recurring nightmares that followed, I’ve been a keen follower of everything she writes. As a close friend and an invaluable mentor, Penny has always been incredibly supportive of my own work, and despite her dubious opinions on sugar sprinkles, I value her excellent writing advice as much as I groan at her terrible jokes. So when she offered me an ARC of her brand new novella Matryoshka (Hersham Horror) I jumped at the chance.
For me, the most wonderful thing about Penny’s writing is it is impossible to pigeonhole her into any specific genre box. While her stories do often have recurring themes, she approaches each one with a fresh angle of attack every time. She is never predictable nor does she rely on tropes, her characters are as likeable as they are often horrible, and her prose has a delicious, dark beauty to it where dreadful events are described in layers of lyrical narration.
Matryoshka follows a similar kind of path that Penny began with her excellent debut collection Suffer Little Children (Black Shuck Shadows, shortlisted for a British Fantasy Award, 2020) which she explored the horrors found in childhood and the horrors that children can be. A raw and often distressing exploration of grief, loss and emptiness, those six tales were light on gore but heavy on dread. The kind of quiet, creeping horror that worms around in your head for a long time after reading, where the tragedies of the past are interwoven with with the present and happy endings are reserved for fairy tales. Something that Penny is particularly good at.
It is difficult to discuss Matryoshka in depth without giving away too much, and I honestly feel that the less you know about it, the more gripped by it you will be. In terms of a plot synopsis (and potential content warnings) Penny herself says that it is “about childbirth, loss of identity and post-partum psychosis” (Rebbie Reviews) which is like saying Stephen King’s The Breathing Method, is about pregnancy and childbirth. Yes, it is indeed about these things, but it also explores so much more about the human psyche, conflicting and crippling emotions, and the doubts and uncertainty that motherhood can bring to so many women, especially if they feel isolated, unsupported or alone.
Penny tells the story from the main character, Lucy’s, perspective as she navigates the complexities of mothering one child while heavily pregnant and expecting another, as the worrying suspicions she has about her husband grow like a cancer in her mind. Convinced that her family are not what they seem, and concerned for her unborn child’s future, Lucy begins to plan her escape, often guided by an unknown, ghostly voice. The monsters in this story are not what you think, despite the deft red-herrings thrown in, instead the real horrors are found in Penny’s tense, unwavering pacing, the inescapable feeling of claustrophobia, and the distrust and panic that seeps from Lucy as she makes one bad decision after another.
If you’re unfamiliar with what the title refers to, matryoshka dolls, also known as Russian dolls or nesting dolls, are a set of wooden dolls of decreasing size which are placed one inside another. It very cleverly mirrors the ways in which Lucy feels like she is being split apart and diminished in size, as her reality is slowly stripped away. It is also an interesting metaphor for pregnancy and how our unborn babies are like us, but not like us; how two seperate individuals can be both connected yet distinct.
The ending of this story chilled me to my core, and admit I actually found it quite difficult. As a mother myself to two children, and someone who experienced post-natal depression after the birth of my first child, the last few pages hit me hard. As is expected for a novella-length story, you could easily read this in one sitting, yet I actually had to take breaks between some scenes to breathe and go and hug my kids because I found the premise of someone I loved being eroded – whether it was true or not – deeply upsetting. But that is also the sign of excellent writing, and honestly, I wouldn’t have wanted it to have ended any other way. It is a gut-punch for sure, but it works so damn well, as Penny masterfully turns those feelings of despair and hopelessness that dog Lucy and the reader throughout the book, all the way up to eleven.
I honestly think this is without a doubt Penny’s best work yet, topping even her exceptional “Dendrochronology” (Hersham Horror) which was shortlisted for the 2020 British Fantasy Award for Best Short Story. I cannot wait to read what she does next.
Matryoshka by Penny Jones is released on 21st April 2021. Buy it from Amazon here.
Find out more about Penny’s other books and short stories on her website here.