Book Review: We Spread by Iain Reid

Title: We Spread

Author: Iain Reid

Genre: Psychological Thrillers

Number of Pages: 304

Rating: B+

Recommended?: Yes

Even though it was a good read, I was a little bit disappointed by this book and I think it’s because I went in with such high expectations. Foe is one of my favorite novels, but this was more like I’m Thinking of Ending Things– well-written and thought-provoking but not something that blew me out of the water.

One of the best (and paradoxically, the most frustrating) things about We Spread is the ambiguity of the storyline, even more so than Iain Reid’s last two novels. If you look at it one way, it’s a sad character study about the effects of Alzheimer’s. But if you look at it another way, it’s a dystopian story about an individual being manipulated and gaslit but an unjust system, like Foe. I leaned more toward the science fiction-like interpretation, because it made more sense to me and made it feel more satisfying somehow.

We Spread centers around an elderly woman named Penny, who is an artist who doesn’t show her work to anybody. Her long-time partner (who is puzzlingly not given a name; I thought the fact that he is just referred as him would come into play at some point, but it didn’t) was an egotistical fellow artist who made her efforts seem small compared to his obvious abundance of genius.

When he dies she is left in the apartment they shared together for most of their adult life. The place is a mess and Penny’s becoming increasingly absent-minded, even hearing bits and pieces of conversations in the supposedly vacant apartment next door to her. When she falls and hurts herself, she’s sent to a strange retirement facility with only four old people (including her) living in it.

The food and accommodations are surprisingly excellent, but Penny starts to feel uneasy and wonders if there’s more than meets the eye to this isolated haven, where inhabitants are encouraged to create and be productive, but a startling amount of control is exercised over their lives. Penny befriends a resident named Hilbert, who’s obsessed with mathematics and for whom small talk clearly doesn’t exist- 99.9% of his conversation is based solely around numbers and theorems and whatnot.

Penny accepts his eccentricities, and he becomes an ally within this strange and sometimes unpredictable system. Penny starts losing time and the labyrinthine facility seems to keep shifting and changing, further convincing her that the retirees are being used for something sinister. I wish the reader got to know Penny better, we only got bits and pieces about her earlier life. I guess it fit the style of the book to give her a sparse and largely ambiguous backstory, but I think finding out more would have helped with my emotional investment.

Iain Reid is a fan of rambling and sometimes esoteric stretches of dialogue and sometimes these don’t seem particularly realistic. It’s a stylistic touch that will work for some people but not for others, I found it distracting at times but it’s typical of his writing and mostly I didn’t mind it. I did enjoy Penny’s narrative voice and the fragmented but propulsive and suspenseful narrative Iain Reid is so good at.

It made a 300-page book feel much shorter and it was hard to put down, pulling me into Penny’s increasingly splintered consciousness. One reason I’d prefer to believe that Penny was onto something instead of simply being a delusional old woman was it makes her feel like a stronger character, fighting for answers despite having very little power over her circumstances. It paints the events in the novel completely differently but it’s a good read either way, portraying the deterioration and lack of respect people experience as they age.

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