My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Special Ones are chosen. They are four individuals who have been removed from their former lives to live in a remote farmhouse under the watchful eye of him because he believes that they are the reincarnated totems of a cult. They must live a life of simplicity and meaningfulness to their followers; nightly chat sessions where The Special Ones answer their problems, and obediently confessing their sins in the middle of the night to be punished. And when they can’t perform their identities, when they fail in their role as one of the Special Ones, they are sent off to be renewed. To be replaced by somebody else from the world, somebody else to be held prisoner..
Reading like something between Big Brother and Black Mirror, The Special Ones is a darkly hypnotic and deeply unnerving novel. It is also a novel of two halves of wildly differing quality, and it’s hard to wed the two together. Bailey’s voice thrives in the darkness of the unsettling home of The Special Ones where everything lives on a knife edge, all along, but then somehow, the novel loses something in its second half. Much of this I suspect rests on the introduction of other voices; we spend the first half of the novel in the company of Esther, and her increasing disquiet and unease. The second half introduces others, rarely signposting the shift (all of these voices are in the first person) and so the text recursively feels the need to contextualise this voice through reference to others or perspective. It’s as though I write one paragraph and then another paragraph appears
which is apparently written by myself even though I am not myself any more, I am the person who walked by just as she needed to make a point about structure and reflexivity.
Suffice to say, it’s complex. Bailey gets away with it a lot because of the competence of her writing and the deep dark unease that permeates the novel at that point, but it’s an issue that does detract from her story. The first half is brilliant. The second half, less so. A dilution of voice, a dilution of focus, a scrappy – too quick – ending. But again, much of that derives from my greed for a resolution to match the opening of the novel, that powerful, dark, wonderful first half.