Robyn Reviews: The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue


Some books are impossible to capture in mere words. It’s ironic – after all, words are all that form the book in the first place – but no other words can quite create the same brilliance, the same beauty, the same resonance. How do you capture transcendence with twenty-six little letters? VE Schwab has found the answer – but I can’t fathom how to possibly do her work justice.

‘The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue’ is the best book VE Schwab has ever written. It’s a masterwork – a feat of wordcraft so exquisite it’s hard to imagine creating anything better. Every sentence is gorgeously constructed, every metaphor lands true, and every word is heartbreaking – heartbreaking because it brings you closer to the end. Addie has made a deal with the devil to live forever, and books like this show you why we all fear the curtain coming down.

“Were the instants of joy worth the stretches of sorrow? Were the moments of beauty worth the years of pain? And she turns her head, and looks at him, and says ‘Always’.”

Adeline LaRue is born in rural France in 1691. She’s a dreamer, a free spirit, always looking beyond the borders of her village – but she’s a girl, and girls are not allowed to dream. Girls must go to church, and obey their betters, and learn to be wives for their future husbands, and look after their households, and bear their children. Bound to a future she doesn’t want, Adeline looks for escape – but every dream has its price, and she doesn’t know the true cost until it’s too late.

Adeline can have her freedom – but only by giving up herself.

“The last, brittle thread to her old life has broken, and Addie has been set well, and truly, and forcibly free.”

Addie is the perfect protagonist. Sharp and quick, she’s the girl who dreams of more – and is also stubborn and determined enough to find it. Forced into dreadful situations, she still manages to find a light in the dark; a reason to go on. More than that – even as her life is treated like the plaything of others, she digs in her heels and wrenches it into the shape she needs. Addie will never back down, never admit defeat, never give up control. She has moments of weakness, of despair, of fear – but she knows that there are many better days to come, and she holds out for them like an old tree, bent and battered by the storm but still standing when the sun returns.

 “If she must grow roots, she would rather be left to flourish wild instead of pruned, would rather stand alone, allowed to grow beneath the open sky. Better that than firewood, cut down just to burn in someone else’s hearth.”

Henry is the opposite – the man who feels too much, and doesn’t know what to do with all these emotions that refuse to let him be. He’s the perfect counterpoint – the racing hurricane to Addie’s steadfast tree, the raging fire to Addie’s cold pool. He’s a dreamer too – but where Addie’s dreams are a tether, his are a maze. Addie’s response to running out of time is to find more of it. Henry’s response is to do more, always more, falling into a panicked spiral until everything falls apart.

Addie’s devil? He’s the dark shadow following you home at night. The menacing maw of the corridor before you flick on the light. He’s endless, timeless, and just when Addie thinks she knows him he demonstrates just how far from a mere human evil he is. She can name him, claim him, blame him – but the darkness cannot be tamed. When everything else fades, the darkness is all that remains.

“You think it will get easier. It will not. You are as good as gone, and every year you live will feel a lifetime, and in every lifetime, you will be forgotten. Your pain is meaningless. Your life is meaningless. The years will be like weight around your ankles. They will crush you, bit by bit, and when you cannot stand it, you will beg me to put you from your misery.”

The plot marches forward like the inexorable march of time. The perspective alternates – Addie now, in New York, versus Addie as she was, learning to navigate her strange half-existence – together weaving a narrative so vibrant, so emotional, you never want to leave. This is a book that could be read over and over and adored more every time. Several of the twists I guessed, but this didn’t lessen their impact – if anything, it highlighted it, their direction as inevitable as the ticking of the clock, the passing of the seasons. Everything comes crashing down eventually – all good things must end.

This story has worked its way into my soul. Calling it a favourite doesn’t even do justice to its impact. It’s less a book and more of an experience – a temporary passage to somewhere greater than here.

If you want to read a story that speaks to your soul, read this book. Read it, and marvel how much beauty can be created with simple words.

“She leans back against him, as if he is the umbrella, and she is the one in need of shelter. And Henry holds his breath, as if that will keep the sky aloft. As if that will keep the days from passing.

As if that will keep it all from falling down.”

Published by Titan Books
Hardback: 6th October 2020

Book Review: The Near Witch

The Near Witch, by V.E. Schwab, is one of those rare books that may work better if well adapted for the screen. It contains a number of electric set pieces that could be awesome and terrifying if presented with appropriate sound and effects. They are granted a great many words to bring to life on the page.

Even beyond these the wider plot too often drags through its world building and repetitive activity. The concept is of our time – a community fearful of strangers and of change – but the fantasy powers foreshadowed never fully deliver.

The story opens with two sisters settling down to sleep in their candlelit bedroom. Sixteen year old Lexi is telling a story to five year old Wren. The narrative unfolds from the point of view of the older girl. We learn that her father is dead and her mother still mourning, now a shadow of her former self. Their uncle, Otto, lives close and keeps an eye on the little family. He disapproves of Lexi’s continuing interest in her father’s occupation as a tracker. Sixteen is the marrying age of the girls in the town and Lexi has a suitor, one she has little interest in.

The action is set in the town of Near. This is a remote community surrounded by moorland and, as the residents neither see strangers nor leave, must be self sufficient – something that is not explained. Generations ago a witch was banished and the children sing songs about the associated tale in their games. There are still two elderly witches in residence. They live on the edges and are treated with suspicion.

When a stranger is spotted, Lexi is curious. She believes that the witches know more about this young man than they will admit. Then children start to disappear and she fears for the safety of Wren. The town elders blame the stranger, assuming his unexpected arrival cannot be coincidental. Shut out from the efforts of these men, who are tasked with protecting the town, Lexi plans her own mission.

As each child is taken, Lexi seeks advice from the witches and tries to find out more about the stranger. She is warned away from involvement by Otto who eschews her supposed skills as a tracker. A love story is developing against a backdrop of growing suspicion. As the elders are making little progress they look for someone to blame.

The introduction by the author explains that this novel, her debut, was written when she was still at university. It was the spark that lit the flame of her successful career. It has fine ideas and some interesting characters but lacks the momentum needed to hold uninterrupted interest. I would have preferred tighter pacing.

Following The Near Witch, the book contains a second, shorter story, The Ash-Born Boy. This offers further background on the stranger who arrived in Near. Because of his powers he was abused by his step-father, something in which his mother was complicit. The tale posed as many questions as it answered.

The edition I read is gorgeously presented with embossed hard covers, end papers, ribbon and illustrations. I suspect it will be enjoyed by the author’s fans who may wish to better understand where her ideas began. As a first exposure to her work it may not have been the best place to start.

A promising concept and adept use of language but overlong and repetitive given the action contained.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Titan Books.