All Fun And Games? The Escape Room Book Review

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The Escape Room Book L D Smithson

by Niall Jones |
Updated on

When Bonnie takes her sister’s place on a mysterious new reality show in L D Smithson’s thrilling debut novel The Escape Room, her biggest fear is of being unmasked as a fraud and thrown off the show. However, once she arrives on the remote sea fort that gives the show its name, The Fortress, it quickly becomes clear that she has much more to be afraid of. For one thing, the contestants are completely alone. For another, the tasks they are faced with become increasingly sadistic. All the while, their every move is being broadcast live and the public seems to be lapping it up – watching, tweeting, judging.

One of the clever things about The Escape Room is that The Fortress initially feels like an entirely plausible TV show. The setting recalls the long-running French game show Fort Boyard, while the mix of mental and physical challenges, involving everything from Morse code to treadmills, evokes The Krypton Factor or even I’m a Celebrity… As a result, there’s an uneasy ambiguity about the show and the contestants are never quite sure whether it’s just a game or if there’s something altogether more sinister going on.

In the novel, The Fortress is marketed to potential contestants with the slogan ‘Are you smart enough to unlock its secrets? CAN YOU GET OUT’. Unlike other shows, however, the tagline is meant entirely literally. It eventually becomes clear that the fort is an elaborate, Gothic prison, a puzzle box from which not everyone will escape.

Fort Boyard – an inspiration?

Bonnie’s fellow contestants on the show represent a broad range of personalities. So broad, in fact, that they initially seem to be stereotypes. There’s Grant, the arrogant ex-public schoolboy who Bonnie takes an instant dislike to; Charlie, the apparently dim and image-obsessed young woman who she dismisses as ‘Love Island girl’; and Maria, fiercely intelligent, but mocked for her looks and weight. As the novel unfolds, however, these stereotypes start to break down and it becomes clear that Bonnie is as guilty of judging by appearances as the viewers who viciously tweet their opinions about the contestants.

While The Escape Room clearly has a strong premise, this alone is not enough to make a thrilling novel. While Smithson’s account of the characters’ time on The Fortress is tense, exciting and scary, what ultimately makes The Escape Room such a distinctive and successful thriller is its structure.

Rather than telling the story entirely chronologically, Smithson employs two main timelines. One of these is a straightforward narration of Bonnie’s time trapped on the sea fort, while the other takes the form of a podcast, in which Bonnie tells her story several months later. By interweaving these two narratives, Smithson builds up tension by creating a layer of dramatic irony. As early as the novel’s second chapter, the reader knows that something truly awful is going to happen, while the contestants remain oblivious. In the podcast, Bonnie and the presenter reflect upon, analyse and pick apart her experiences on The Fortress, but this is much more than a fan show. In fact, it’s a true crime podcast.

One of the clever things about the podcast chapters is that they don’t solve the mystery of what happened on the fort and why. The Bonnie being interviewed is just as in dark as the Bonnie taking part in The Fortress. She knows that ‘everything was a clue’, but is none the wiser as to what these clues meant. This creates a sense of foreboding and ratchets up the tension. It also encourages readers to treat the novel as a puzzle and to solve the mystery of The Fortress for themselves. Eventually, the narrative of Bonnie’s time on the show catches up with the podcast chapters and the story takes a sinister and unexpected turn.

L D Smithson author The Escape Room
L D Smithson

The novel’s structure is also integral to the way in which Smithson lets the plot unfold. In addition to the podcast chapters, she also includes a number of other chapters that digress from the main story. Although these can be confusing at first – for example, the bloody opening chapter initially feels like it belongs to another novel entirely – everything ultimately has its purpose. By the time that the final plot twist has been revealed, what was obscure in these chapters has become suddenly, shockingly clear.

The Escape Room is a dark, addictive and cleverly plotted thriller. It isn’t perfect -- the prose is stilted in places (particularly in the chapters that detail Bonnie's home life) and the plot is occasionally far-fetched -- but these are minor quibbles. It is ultimately a gripping read that takes our contemporary obsession with reality TV and turns it into a horror story.

The Escape Room is available now from Penguin Random House, £14.99

by L D Smithson

The Escape Room L D Smithson cover
Price: $8.00
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