Bedbugs book review

A New York artist succumbs to paranoia and an attack of creepy-crawlies in Ben H Winters’ novel, Bedbugs. Here’s Ron’s book review…

Susan and Alex Wendt have a great life. They’re relatively happily married, they have an adorable daughter named Emma, and things are going so well for Alex at his business – taking photography of jewellery for ads – that the family is able to move out of their tiny Union Square apartment and into the upstairs of a big old Brooklyn brownstone. Susan has even been able to quit her job as a lawyer and dedicate herself to her painting.

That is, she would be able to dedicate herself to her painting, except for the fact that she’s having some trouble getting inspired to paint. Fortunately, her new apartment has a great little bonus room off the kitchen, with great light. It’s the perfect spot to set up an easel. When Susan finds a picture of the cute couple who inhabited the apartment previously, well, she finds her inspiration.

Then, things get a little strange. Susan, after a night of feverish painting, collapses into bed only to discover a tiny drop of blood on her pillow. On the painting of the previous tenants, she finds three small bite marks on the girl. Bedbug bites. Susan’s got bedbug bites, as well. However, she’s the only one with any marks.

Andrea the landlady says the building is clean. An exterminator and bedbug expert says the building is clean, too. Alex and Emma are bite-free, but Susan is obsessed with the idea of bedbugs and, despite all logic, she keeps getting bitten. Is Susan going mad, or are there more nefarious forces at work behind the doors of 56 Cranberry Street?

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Ben H Winters is an experienced novelist, and he approaches Bedbugs with a strong sense of style that carries throughout the novel. His best-known previous works are a pair of Quirk mash-ups, Sense And Sensibility And Sea Monsters, and Android Karenina. His young adult novel, The Secret Life Of Ms Finkleman, is an Edgar Award nominee. Of the mash-ups, Android Karenina was my favourite, and that has much to do with Winters’ style.

Bedbugs, another Quirk book from Mr Winters, is stronger than his mash-ups, due to the fact that it’s one author’s voice, and one author’s ideas.

He uses a whole lot of details concerning brands and addresses, that may or may not actually exist in New York City, but it’s very helpful, since it helps ground the supernatural horror in reality (admittedly, it can get a bit American Psycho at times, with its obsession with brand names). If we don’t know what it’s like living in Brooklyn, the reader has enough grounding in pop culture to form mental images of Susan’s Broadway actress friend, or various Williamsburg hipsters, or Andrea the eccentric landlady. Winters uses some great descriptions, and paints some excellent metaphorical pictures.

More importantly, Susan’s slow descent into madness is well paced. It starts out with a dot and escalates as she is attacked… nay, consumed by bedbugs that no one else believes in or are affected by. To the book’s credit, it paces itself very well over its 256 pages, and by the end, if you’re not subconsciously scratching yourself, then you must not be as petrified by the thought of bedbugs as I am. The ending is a bit abrupt, but I’d rather have an abrupt ending than a dragged-out prologue.

The book is a lot of fun and a great fall read for when you’re bundled under a pile of blankets that may or may not be full of creepy-crawlies. The uneven start leads to a pretty crackling finale; just stock up on calamine lotion before you start flipping pages.

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Bedbugs is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.

US correspondent Ron Hogan is absolutely horrified by the idea of bedbugs. Or any kind of bug, for that matter. Find more by Ron at his blog, Subtle Bluntness, and daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.


4 out of 5