A Guide to the Dark by Meriam Metoui (Henry Holt, 2023)
By Warner Holme: Meriam Metoui’s A Guide to the Dark is a novel of love, friendship, and death. Arguably these are the three aspects one can find in any completed happy life, making them very common elements in writing. It’s also a book of horrific deaths and the way such matters can seem to linger long after they should. Wrapped in a shell relating to a road trip and a seemingly cursed location, it’s a story that should be easy to grab genre fans who with a taste for this certain subdivision of YA.
The leads are Mira and Layla, a pair of girls ending high school and looking forward to their potential University years. The loss of one’s brother is a shared tragedy from their pasts, but a larger secret builds between the pair. This secret, a romantic interest that is mutual but hidden, is a source of much drama for them both due to family and interpersonal concerns. The entry of other individuals, such as a young man named Ellis living at the hotel with an easily learned tragedy of his own, only further complicates the dynamic between the pair.
This is a novel of a haunted hotel room, going back to the likes of The Shining or The Green Man in 20th century influences. This volume feels decidedly more 21st century, with the Arabic queer leads and thoughtful use of digital photography being far more aspects of current genre fiction. The use of these aspects are more subtle than in many more recent works, indeed far more subtle than in the uses by Stephen King alone, yet never quite fall into the realm of comfortable.
Calling the book horror or a thriller might be odd for many upon reading. It is quieter and less flashy than the majority of the genres in question, even spending a fair number of pages in it.
The photography in the book is interesting due to the in universe conceit. Specifically all of the images allegedly are taken by and of people and events in the book. This allows a number of clever uses of photo manipulation throughout the book, but in light of the fact one of the leads is supposed to be an experienced photographer it will leave the reader looking for style or exceptional levels of quality which will not always be found. On the other hand the character in question is a student, and many of the photographs are quite candid. As a result they all feel believably the work of the individual in question, it’s merely a matter of what a reader will think that says about the character.
Risk is a major element of life, as is fear. Both are major pieces of this story. When to take a risk or not, and the upsides and downsides of what can result are key. The nature of fear, and how it connects both before and after to the concept of loss, is also quite important down to the well chosen words originally by C.S. Lewis before the bulk of the text.
Overall this is a quick breezy read, with characters the target audience should appreciate and find aspects of themselves in. The occasional pop culture reference is rare, such as one to the detective series Monk, leaving it far more an independent work than one relying on the knowledge of readers in these areas.