There are secrets and lies, deceit and obfuscating, plus a lot of gaslighting in Amy Lukavics' Nightingale. The author has built a backlist of super dark feminist YA horror centring the experiences of young women against the backdrop of traditional horror scenarios. With Daughter Unto Devils we had the isolated cabin in the prairie nightmare; The Women in the Walls we had a haunted mansion; and Ravenous had a twist on zombies.
In Nightingale, the author turns her eyes to mental asylums and hysteria in the 50s with an added element of unexpected science fiction. June Hardie is seventeen, a young American girl whose life is organized for her by her parents and her husband-to-be. Her mother grooms her to be as beautiful as she can (seeing how June is so plain and homely) and to be the perfect housewife. Her father has very few expectations beyond making sure June gets along well with the son of his business partner.
But June is a little bit rebellious, a little bit too wistful for her family’s taste. She dreams of travelling the world, perhaps going to college and above all, she wants to finish writing her dark, violent science fiction novel about a young woman who is kidnapped and experimented on by aliens. Writing her story keeps her awake at night and consumes her to the point of obsession. Then one day June looks into the mirror and sees tiny scars – they could be wrinkles but the doubt lingers.
Interspersed with June’s narrative about her family life in the “days past,” are chapters at the Burrow Place Asylum, aka the Institution, where June has been sent to after something went really wrong back home. At the Institution June witnesses the horrific, brutal “scientific” treatment of non-conforming young women – including Eleanor, with whom June falls in love.
The novel goes back and forth in time, and as things become increasingly tense and horrific in both strands of the narrative, the more June finds difficult to cope. But finding succour in the arms of another girl, finding strength in her own mind, June slowly manages to investigate the truth of what is really happening to her with unexpected consequences. And you know: the truth is out there (I am not saying it’s Aliens but…)?
Through June's highly unreliable narrative, we get pulled into a nightmarish, twisted narrative in which is hard to say if what is happening to her is real, hallucinated, or the product of a fertile mind at work writing fiction. Although the villains can come across slightly carboard-ish and the historical background allows only for a very specific, restricted experience of being a white queer woman in the 50s, the novel offers a twisterific, fun, super weird horror novel.
"Nightingale" lives where feminism intersects with Twilight Zone and The X-Files and if you are looking for a cracking read for this Halloween, this is a good place to start.
In Booksmugglerish: 7 out of 10