At first, Rachel Sargeant’s The Roommates seems to fall into many of the tired genre tropes of psychological thrillers. Following the transition of five roommates into university life, the novel stages the conventional challenges of coming-of-age alongside a darker narrative of suspicion, vulnerability and danger. The buried secrets and troubled pasts of all of the roommates, the complete rejection of coincidence, a suspicious, dark figure who seems to be stalking the group of flatmates, initially points to the novel’s status as an exciting but conventional read.
Grippingly original, The Roommates propels you through its pages
Yet, it is a book which defies its first impressions. Grippingly original, The Roommates propels you through its pages, permeated with suspense and the unsettling shadows of human nature. Sargeant inhabits the expected genre codes only in order to later expand or reject them, shocking and engrossing the reader. Interweaving the perspectives of four of the five flatmates, Imo, Tegan, Phoenix and Amber, the novel combines each of their assumptions, reactions and baggage in order to gradually reveal the tense narrative clues after one of them goes missing.
It is also an important book for its sensitive portrayal of the anxieties which surround adolescence, seeking independence and university life. The fictional University of Abbeyforth is not solely a passive background to the plot, but infuses all aspects of the novel. The difficulties of forging a separate path to that of your parents, navigating the difficulties of families and friendships, and even the problems surrounding self-image and belonging characterise The Roommates. As such, it is not solely a book which deals with the mysteries of crime and psychology, but also the mysteries we all have to face whilst growing up and whilst learning to find our way in the world.
deals with the mysteries we all have to face whilst growing up and whilst learning to find our way in the world
Sargeant’s prose is fast-paced and jittery. Her frequent omission of articles, reducing her sentences to their bare bones of coherence, serves to quicken the pace of the narrative and unsettle the reader. More closely mirroring internal dialogue than ordinary, written, extended prose, it also seems to offer insight into the immediate psychological responses of the novel’s central characters. Thus, the reader experiences the narrative events in a more unmediated, uninhibited manner, heightening the claustrophobic, restless tension of the novel.
I won’t deny that, despite this psychological immediacy and their sensitive portrayal, the novel’s characters remain largely unlikeable and at times unbelievable. It is unfortunate that they sometimes appear as caricatures, their problems, secrets and obsessions multiplied to the point of unreality. Despite this, however, Sargeant is still able to create a powerful, entertaining and gripping tale of the limitations of social interactions, of the barriers we erect to shield ourselves from pain, guilt and memories and of the menacing undercurrents that we can fail to perceive in everyday life.
Images courtesy of Rachel Sergeant