Darling Jim, Christian Moerk’s first novel published in the U.S., is somehow both stupid and terrific. It’s also weirdly ambitious for what’s ultimately an engaging popcorn read. The Danish-born author bounces between three separate narrative threads, nesting stories inside of stories and visiting four voices that are just distinct enough to delineate character without turning the whole novel into a top-heavy literary experiment.
Darling Jim’s greatest triumph stems from just how well it captures the overbearing, slightly creepy atmosphere of a small town enmeshed in dark mystery. Its setting of Castletownbere, Ireland, initially feels like a normal literary small town, but by the end of the book, it’s gripped by a mania, and unable to come to terms with what it sacrificed in the name of the charming drifter who inspired the book’s title.
The central character, a directionless postman trying to unravel the mystery of why two young women and their middle-aged aunt died while the latter kept the former imprisoned, is more a conduit for information than a full-fledged human being, and Moerk’s attempts to invest his comics-drawing hobby with menace often come across as trying too hard. But the three sisters at the center of the investigation are well-drawn portraits of siblings whose bond is so tight, it keeps outsiders from peering in. In particular, Moerk does an excellent job of shaping Roísin, a standoffish genius lesbian with an affinity for ham radio, who manages to never be too prickly nor too sympathetic.
Some of Moerk’s plotting is haphazard—at one point, a character finishes a story seemingly just because Moerk couldn’t find another place to put that conclusion—and it can take some work to adjust to the subtle differences in voices, particularly that of overwrought Fiona. But for the most part, Darling Jim is a captivating read and one of the better overtly gothic horror-slash-love tales of recent years. It even manages to invest its central monster with seemingly supernatural powers without tipping the scale too heavily in favor of demons and things that lurk in the dark. Nobody is safe in Darling Jim, but it isn’t a threat from beyond the grave that trips up the characters, it’s their own weaknesses.