Book Review: The Agony House (Cherie Priest)

About

This YA book is author Cherie Priest’s most recent publication. It features illustrations by Tara O’Connor. Released in September of 2018, it currently has a rating of 4.02 on Goodreads.

Denise Farber has just moved back to New Orleans with her mom and step-dad. They left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and have finally returned, wagering the last of their family’s money on fixing up an old, rundown house and converting it to a bed and breakfast. When floors collapse, deadly objects rain down, and she hears creepy voices, it’s clear to Denise that something sinister lurks hidden here. Answers may lie in an old comic book Denise finds concealed in the attic. A mystery begins to reveal itself.

Analysis

My first experience with Cherie Priest was a recent one; I read her YA novel, I Am Princess X, about a teenaged girl who stumbles across cryptic clues in a popular online comic book that lead her to believe her late best fried is still alive, and reaching out. I was hooked right from the start and was thrilled when Agony House was announced shortly after. I had really high expectations, and was not disappointed in the least. On the contrary, I was thoroughly surprised at how tight, elegant, and socially relevant Agony House was.

The book starts as most ghost stories do; a distraught family moves into a big, old house. In this case, Denise and her mother are moving back to New Orleans, where they lived when she was a baby. The reason they left is made immediately clear. Her father and grandmother died in the Storm back in ’05 – Hurricane Katrina.

Race, Class & Gentrification

Right away, this story inserts itself into a very specific time and place. Better yet, it weaves itself into the fabric of that time and place. Denise and her family are white, new in town, and trying to fix up an old house. Although all they are trying to do is bring her grandmother’s dream to life (a bed and breakfast in her home state), from the outside, it looks like something that people in town are very touchy about: gentrification. Denise takes a lot of flack for this and Priest constructs a number of interesting conversations, between teens, about race and class. These stark, no nonsense, conversations happen throughout the book. They don’t only identify the problems:

[T]hat’s what happens around here. People come in from someplace else, they buy up crapholes and turn them into mansions… Pretty soon, you’ve got a little block like an island, like a fortress. Bunch of people who see a couple black guys waiting at a bus stop and call the police, like we’re casing houses or something.

But, they also identify solutions. Or, at least try to:

When it comes to this neighborhood, if you want to do right – if you want to be part of the solution, not the problem – all you have to do is ask. Then, I mean, you have to listen.

Despite being in a really tough financial place, Denise is still essentially asked to check her privilege. And she does. She is very open to the arguments people around her are making, and makes an effort to understand their perspective, and to ‘earn her keep.’ In one scene, she blatantly asks what she and her family should do to avoid becoming gentrifiers.

Denise: What should we do, then? How should we make the nail house part of the neighborhood?

Norman: Hire people from the neighborhood to work on it, and work in it when it’s finished – and pay them what they’re worth. That’d be a start.

It’s also worth noting that the book also makes a point to immediately identify every character introduced as black or white. It doesn’t say, “darker” or “fair” or anything so subtle. By unapologetically pointing out “black” and “white”, it draws a very clear picture of race and race relations that are integral to the story’s context. I thought this was a bold move, and a refreshing one.

The Ghost Stuff

Of course, this is not just a book about race, class and gentrification – primarily, it presents as a story about ghosts. As a supernatural mystery, it does pretty well. I’m not usually a ghost-story person, but I find with all the very real and very scary stuff going on these days, a good supernatural spook feels good for the soul. So, I went all in on this one. I let myself get lost in every “what was that?” and “did you hear that?” and I had a good time.

The mystery builds as Denise and a somewhat intrusive ghost-obsessed neighbour-boy come to suspect her house is haunted by, not one, but two ghosts. One malevolent, and one protective. When they find an old, unpublished comic book, by a man who was once famous for his work, they decide to use it to find clues about who the ghosts might be, and what might be keeping them there. The closer they get to the truth, the more danger comes to them. It almost feels like a really fun episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark?, where you assume no one will die, but you’re still a little on edge while routing for these kids to solve the mystery and save the day. That familiarity was really nostalgic for me, and made the experience that much more delightful.

Final Thoughts

Was I afraid? No. Was the ghost stuff predictable? A little. Was it fun? Absolutely. I’m not convinced I would have been as glued to this book if it weren’t for all the race/class stuff that filled the gaps between hauntings, but I probably still would have read it. Bringing the two together was a great idea as it enriched the story in an unexpected way.

I give this book a 4/5.

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