I'm Thinking Of Ending Things by Iain Reid

'I'm thinking of ending things,' begins the unnamed narrator of Canadian writer Iain Reid's novel as she embarks on a long winter car journey with her boyfriend Jake. The phrase keeps popping into her head like an annoying tune. Why, exactly? Jake seems nice enough - they've been together for seven weeks after meeting at a pub quiz, and he's taking her to meet his parents at their farm. The narrator seems to like him, finds him attractive, is impressed by his intelligence. But her observations of his appearance and habits are minutely detailed and oddly critical, in an impassive sort of way, and there's a strange sense of creeping anxiety that, even when unexpressed, pervades them. Even the dialogue between the them is awkward and jarring - peculiar anecdotes, overwrought philosophical observations - and yet neither questions the other's state of mind.

That sense of anxiety and unease, a powerfully oppressive feeling that nothing is quite right, builds throughout I'm Thinking Of Ending Things. Reading it is rather like experiencing one of those strange dreams in which ordinary events - a family meal, a driving lesson, buying a drink at a fast food kiosk - somehow become frightening and ominous in small, gradually more unsettling ways.  There's the Caller, a person of indeterminate gender who seems to be stalking her, calling her phone and leaving the same strange message each time. Who could the Caller be? And why on earth won't the narrator tell anyone about them? When Jake and the narrator arrive at the farm, it first seems abandoned, and then when his parents do appear - pleasant and well-meaning though they are - the conversation is strange and awkward. Jake's mother is wearing makeup that is 'sort of unsettling' and pads around barefoot with a missing toenail. And why are there strange scratches all over the basement door? On the way home, Jake insists on driving to an old school to throw away some lemonade cups, and yet the narrator doesn't feel able to point out that this is absurd. Even stranger, the narrative is occasionally interrupted by snatches of dialogue between two people discussing the aftermath of - what, exactly? Certainly something terrible, but what's it got to do with our narrator?

"My story is not like a movie, I’ll say. It’s not heart-stopping or intense or bloodcurdling or graphic or violent. No jump scares. To me, these qualities aren’t usually scary. Something that disorients, that unsettles what’s taken for granted, something that disturbs and disrupts reality—that’s scary," the narrator says, when she digresses into an anecdote about a childhood experience with a strangely malevolent neighbour, and this absolutely sums up what's frightening about I'm Thinking Of Ending Things. When the narrator and Jake arrive at the school - well, let's just say the tension certainly builds, but this is still far from being a conventional horror thriller. Some reader reviews have described the ending as a twist, and some seem to feel that it's just plain baffling - but what a lot of them seem to skip over is that the more obvious terror is undercut with an intense sadness that is almost frightening in itself.

I can honestly say that I'm Thinking Of Ending Things is the most cleverly unnerving book I've read in a very long time, and I found it profoundly frightening in places. I think this is a book that people will respond to in very different and very personal ways, and it definitely won't chime with everyone, but I couldn't put it down, even when it was far from a comfortable read.