Blurring the lines between reality and insanity, this psychological horror novel from South African writer Strydom (The Raft, 2015) chronicles a struggling musician’s descent into madness after agreeing to facilitate a rich man’s unusual wish.
Although Bentley Croud is a gifted jazz pianist, that talent hasn’t helped him much in his miserable life. He lives in a dumpy apartment building (aka the “Crack Radisson”), plays a few gigs a week in local bars, and has no family or friends to speak of. Shortly after finding out that his estranged father has died, Bent (as he calls himself in the narrative) meets an enigmatic man who offers him a large sum of money to play piano at a weekend party at his mansion. The man, Leonard Fry, who lives alone on a palatial estate, pulls Bent aside after the party is over and makes him a Faustian offer. Fry, who has grown disillusioned with his seemingly meaningless existence, wants Bent to lock him in a room for an entire year. Bent can live in the mansion, have access to the money, drive any number of luxury vehicles—all he has to do is serve three meals a day to Fry through a slot in the door. Bent agrees, but the experiment quickly takes a dark turn when he begins questioning his own sanity. While the writing is certainly rich, the nonlinear narrative and unreliable narrator make for a choppy and detached read. And although the chiastic structure of the story is interesting, it can’t make up for largely cardboard and emotionally flat characters. Additionally, the provocative premise suggests the potential not only for a mind-blowing conclusion, but also profound existential revelations. (“After everything is gone, after everything I’ve spent my life obsessing over has disappeared, what’s left of me?”) Sadly, all the reader is left with is unanswered questions.