The Otherlife by Julia Gray

Note: I received this book through NetGalley from the publisher, Penguin Random House UK/Andersen Press, in exchange for an honest review.

When troubled, quiet Ben begins at the ruthlessly competitive Cottesmore House, school to the richest, most privileged boys, he is befriended by Hobie: the wealthy class bully, product of monstrous indulgence and intense parental ambition.

Hobie is drawn to Ben because he can see the Otherlife: a violent, mythic place where gods and monsters roam.   Ben has unnerving visions of Thor and Odin, and of the giant beasts that will destroy them, as well as Loki, god of mischief.   Hobie is desperate to be a part of it.

Well, this was a head-melter.   Julia Gray brings in imagery from Norse mythology to weigh heavily on the main characters and reflect the main narrative of this twisty, yet engaging story.

The story is told from two perspectives and from two timelines.   Ben, a quiet boy obsessed with Norse mythology, death and Metallica; his peer, Hobie, a brash have-everything, want-everything brat.   We hear one side of the story from Ben in the present day, and the other from Hobie, set a few years ago.

The whole narrative is overshadowed by a sense of dread, that something happened that we aren’t privy to from the outset.

Both boys are under pressure from parents to succeed in a narrow, academic way: Ben, mainly from his mother, and Hobie, from his high society parents, who expect nothing less than excellence.

The cast of characters is rounded out by an intriguing and well-written litany of roles.   Zara, Hobie’s little sister and object of his constant bullying, is a character you really empathise with.   Jason, Ben and Hobie’s tutor, is a mysterious and enigmatic presence, while providing the focus of the main mystery element of the novel.

The most jarring, yet enjoyable aspect of this novel is the difference between the two perspectives.   Ben’s narration is dreamy and despairing, heavily influenced by ancient Norse stories as he is plagued with visions of Thor, Loki, Odin et al.   The highlight then is Hobie’s narrative.   The kid that has it all wants nothing more than to make everyone in his life miserable.   He bullies his friends, his sisters, plays pranks on his mother and rejects the food provided for him by the family’s maid.   Despite all these repulsive traits, he seems to care for Ben, leaving the reader conflicted as to how to feel for Hobie.

That’s the main grab here: you feel for Ben and Hobie.   Ben struggles to cope with stress and headaches and misguided guilt, while Hobie seems to be intent on a mindless destructive rampage, with no real objective.

The Otherlife is an unusual read, but a rewarding one.   The interweaving of Norse mythology is seamless, especially where it lines up with the main narrative.   The book is also written in a way that keeps you guessing as to where it’s going.   With that element of something more sinister in the background looming throughout, it put i me in mind of We Were Liars, where we similarly learn not to trust our narrators.   I came to this expecting something of a fantasy, what with the involvement of currently popular Norse mythology, but I was fascinated to instead plunge into the darker minds of Ben and Hobie.

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