The Big Chill, by Doug Johnstone – book review

We featured the first in Doug Johnstone’s Skelfs trilogy, A Dark Matter, back in January 2020. If you don’t remember, remind yourself. I’ll wait. The three generations of Skelf women have, by chance, found themselves to be funeral directors and private investigators. The premise sounds slightly tawdry but in fact is nothing like it. Here is life and warmth and acceptance and a shield against the chaos that infects the lives of those that find their way to their door. The second title, The Big Chill, works as a standalone novel but it is, clearly a sequel that builds on the big, bold finish to A Dark Matter. Don’t think of it as enjoying Chill less if you read it on its own: think of it as enjoying it more as part of an ensemble piece.

Johnstone seems to like ensembles. Each of the Skelfs represents well the trials and wisdom of her generation. None overshadows the other, although 70-something Dorothy is a stand-out heroine of any age and of the ages. She provides the perspective, mid-life Jenny the world-weariness, Hannah the passion. While the world is collapsing around the three of them, they – and their supporting cast – keep each other grounded. ‘You still have to live,’ Indy tells Hannah over ‘the chasm of the casket’. 

For physicists, the big chill is a ‘meaningful nothingness, a void of existence’. This Big Chill is the entire opposite. Over three books that are flippant, funny, surreal and at times breathtakingly sad, Johnstone wants to remind us that it is a joy to be alive, and that we have the ability to find support from those around us, and a duty to provide support to those who need it. 

Go and read The Big Chill and come back tomorrow when we’ll be looking at the third in the series: The Great Silence.

Doug Johnstone has previously taken part in our Secret Library feature.

Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy.

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