I read A Game for All the Family all in one go, right after having laser eye surgery which made reading words on a page fairly difficult—so that’s a testament to how gripping Sophie Hannah’s psychological thriller is. Unfortunately, what started as a fantastically creepy story let itself down at the last minute.
A Game for All the Family has been out for almost a year in the UK, but I hadn’t heard about it until I was sent the brand new US edition by HarperCollins. (I’ve included the US cover art here because it’s wonderfully spooky.)
After retiring from a career that nearly destroyed her, Justine moves to a beautiful new home in Devon—only to start receiving anonymous calls threatening her and her family if she doesn’t go back to London. Even worse, her once-chatty daughter is suddenly quiet and withdrawn after her new best friend, George, is expelled from her school. Justine begs the headteacher to reconsider—only to discover that there’s no record of a George ever having attended the school.
And then Justine finds a story that her daughter wrote for school—about a terrible thing that once happened in their house…
Right from the start, A Game for All the Family sent shivers down my spine. In the very first chapter, the family drive past an unassuming house on the motorway, and Justine is hit with an overwhelming premonition that one day she will live there—and be grateful for it. Eeshk. That gave me goosebumps before I’d even got going, and it only got spookier from that point.
Sophie Hannah’s writing is a delightful mixture of gentle comedy and horror. The story written by Justine’s daughter Eileen is particularly hilarious: as terrified as I was, I still found myself unexpectedly laughing out loud at points. (Mainly because it’s so odd—but wonderfully so.)
The story is bizarre and unpredictable (though in the end, that was more thanks to how contrived it was rather than any particular cleverness on Hannah’s part); it was the total weirdness of it that kept me utterly hooked for 24 hours with no clue of how it could possibly end. I have to praise the fact that this novel kept me so engrossed for so long, even if it did unravel right at the end…
When you’ve spent a full 24 hours absorbed in a mind-bogglingly bizarre mystery, you do rather hope that the ending will pull everything together in one jaw-dropping “aha!” moment. Sadly, the end of A Game for All the Family felt more like the final episode of Lost: a contrived and unlikely collection of answers that technically do solve the mystery—but not with any finesse. The big reveal takes place through dull, expositional dialogue and long-winded explanatory emails—one even including a Wikipedia link to do some of the explaining on Hannah’s behalf, for Christ’s sake—grinding the previously fast pace of the novel almost to a halt.
In order for the ending to make sense, you’re expected to just accept the fact that not a single character acted in a manner at all resembling normal human behaviour. I had forgiven their bizarre behaviour when I thought a clever twist would explain it; it’s much harder to swallow the idea that the entire community was just outrageously odd. (It was also pretty aggravating that in a village full of such strange characters, one woman’s decision to give her children her maiden name instead of her husband’s surname was so repeatedly noted as sinister behaviour. Yikes, is it 1800 again already?)
This is a tremendously fun read that livened up my dull recovery day enormously. The disappointing ending doesn’t detract from how much I enjoyed reading a good 90% of the novel—but it would make me wary of recommending it on. If you’re looking for a fun and spooky beach read to invest a couple of lazy afternoons in, I think you’ll love it—but it’s a fairly chunky book, so you may end up frustrated if you spend a few weeks working your way through it and hoping for closure at the end.
A Game for All the Family is now out in both the UK and the US!
*I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.