An imposing, isolated hotel, high up in the Swiss Alps, is the last place Elin Warner wants to be. But she’s taken time off from her job as a detective, so when she receives an invitation out of the blue to celebrate her estranged brother’s recent engagement, she has no choice but to accept.
Arriving in the midst of a threatening storm, Elin immediately feels on edge. Though it’s beautiful, something about the hotel, recently converted from an abandoned sanatorium, makes her nervous – as does her brother, Isaac.
And when they wake the following morning to discover his fiancée Laure has vanished without a trace, Elin’s unease grows. With the storm cutting off access to and from the hotel, the longer Laure stays missing, the more the remaining guests start to panic.
But no-one has realized yet that another woman has gone missing. And she’s the only one who could have warned them just how much danger they’re all in . . .
Having heard so much buzz about The Sanatorium on Book Twitter, I was absolutely thrilled to be approved to read this debut by Netgalley UK – with it’s isolated setting, cold winter vibes, and chilling location, it sounded right up my street!
As the novel opens, police detective Elin Warner is reluctantly making her way to Le Sommet, a recently opened and exclusive luxury hotel high in the Swiss Alps that has been controversially converted from an abandoned sanatorium. With her architect boyfriend Will in tow, Elin is hoping to reconnect with her estranged brother Issac and his fiancée, her childhood friend Laure.
Suffering from PTSD as a result of her last case, Elin is hoping that meeting Issac again will allow her to put the ghosts of the past – and of some long-held childhood trauma – to rest. Will, meanwhile, is hoping the break will allow Elin to focus on her future, rather than being stuck in her past. But when the hotel is cut off by a snowstorm and Laure goes missing, it isn’t long before Elin and Will find themselves embroiled in the many mysteries that surround Le Sommet‘s past. And then the first body is found…
Intriguing isn’t it? As you can probably tell, there’s quite a bit going on in The Sanatorium, with the novel mixing together elements of the traditional ‘country house’ mystery – isolated location, limited number of suspects, EVERYONE has something to hide – with those of a psychological thriller.
Elin makes for a fantastic narrator in this respect as, owing to her PTSD and the emotional toll that repressing her childhood trauma is taking on her, she makes for an unreliable and deeply fallible main character. Admittedly there were times when I did get somewhat frustrated by Elin – she has a tendency to switch from coolly efficient to emotionally incapable rather rapidly at times – but, for the most part, I found her to be a sympathetic character with understandable motivations and fears.
The Sanitorium also drips atmosphere. There are some fantastic descriptions that really allowed me to imagine the cold minimalism of Le Sommet‘s interiors and the glacial isolation of the snowy surroundings. Sarah Pearse is also excellent at building dramatic tension and, whilst the book doesn’t quite manage to avoid some of the clichés of the thriller genre, all of the set pieces are pulled off with great aplomb and the novel definitely has that page-turning, can’t-stop-reading quality!
Whilst Elin makes for an excellent narrator, I did have issues with the way some of the other characters and relationships are portrayed in The Sanatorium. Will in particular is clearly meant to be the ‘nice guy’ but I found his behaviour – and his lack of patience and respect for Elin’s trauma – to be really problematic. He has his redeeming moments but, on the whole, I didn’t feel that the subplot involving the state of Elin and Will’s relationship worked alongside the rest of the novel and I was disappointed that one of the key events later in the story seemed designed to guilt Elin into appreciating Will’s role in her life.
I also found the character of Issac – Elin’s estranged brother – to be very difficult. Aggressive, demanding and manipulative, Issac spends much of the novel high on the suspect list and I found it difficult to believe in the redemption he is given at the novel’s conclusions. Whilst the subplot involving Elin, Issac and their shared childhood trauma was interesting, the conclusion to it felt somewhat tacked on and, again, like an excuse for Elin to revaluate Issac and excuse his poor behaviour.
Given that Elin is such an interesting character, I would have liked to have seen her work through her PTSD and trauma on her own – and for her own reasons – rather than doing so through these relationships with the male figures in her life. This was particularly disappointing to me because the main mystery of the novel centres around male degradation and abuse of women, with an interesting (and sadly all too believable) examination of the way in which ‘troublesome’ women were confined to sanatoria for often made-up reasons. Given this element of the novel, there are trigger warnings for some graphic depictions of violence/bodily mutilation, mentions of sexual violence/rape, and discussions of psychosis/delusional psychosis, as well as significant representation of PTSD.
This maybe makes it sound as if I didn’t enjoy The Sanatorium but that’s definitely not the case. I enjoyed it for what it was – a pacy, atmospheric thriller that I raced through in a couple of evenings and had a good time with. But as with many thrillers, you do have to suspend your disbelief a little to really immerse yourself in the story. There’s definitely the occasional ‘that wouldn’t really happen’ moment, plus some slightly dodgy light-touch characterisation in places but if you just go along with the ride then this is an enjoyably atmospheric debut that takes place in a fantastic setting, poses an interesting mystery, and has that all important page-turning quality.
The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse is published by Transworld and is available to pre-order now (pub date 18 February 2020) from all good bookshops and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery. My thanks go the publisher and to Netgalley UK for providing an ecopy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!