Bibi Blair, the heroine of Dean Koontz’s new novel Ashley Bell, is an optimist – someone who starts each day with the promise of new beginnings, and who doesn’t believe that fate is in charge of her life story. As an accomplished young writer, with a handsome fiancé who is a Navy SEAL and her adoring parents, it looks like Bibi’s life should be perfect. That is until one day she is told that she has a rapidly advancing and rare form of cancer, for which there is no cure and which leaves her with very little time to live.
When Bibi wakes up the next day with no traces of the cancer left, the doctors believe her to be a medical miracle – Bibi, who only remembers a midnight visit from a hooded man and his dog, begins to suspect that there are other forces at play. She knows that she is the carrier of a secret from her past – a secret so deeply buried that even she herself cannot remember it, but which nevertheless is the reason she was saved from death, and which is now unravelling to be the biggest threat to her newly reclaimed life.
Fans of bestseller Dean Koontz will be well versed in Koontz’s enigmatic plotlines, and his ability to turn the trademarks of realism upside down in favour of creating fantastic worlds with their own, fantastic rules. In Ashley Bell Koontz is obviously enjoying himself while creating a plotline and characters that start off perfectly legitimate and realistic, only to then become increasingly abstract and elusive. While there is also a lot of fun to be had for the reader – especially in Koontz’ evocative crafting of Bibi’s experience of the world as a child – the rhythm of the narrative and the timing and relevance of certain events and characters start to fall into somewhat of a jumble by about two-thirds into the book.
Increasing weirdness is not necessarily a bad thing at all – as fans of Stephen King’s writing or David Lynch’s movies will attest. But weirdness without a strong raison d’être, or purpose for it’s own existence, is, well, just weirdness. Interesting weirdness, yes, but also the kind of weirdness that does not necessarily add much when the central characterisations have gone somewhat astray.
While the characterisation of Bibi Blair starts off with a hiss and a roar, there is only a vague sense of her development. Although her dante-esque descent into a hellish underworld, populated by askew characters from her past is a journey in which she is looking for her real self, when she eventually gets there, the moment seems strangely empty and fleeting.
It also seems like Bibi’s story may be a set up for a subsequent novel; a potentially intriguing premise for a future plotline, and one which may hold the ability to develop the central ideas of Ashley Bell – the exploration of things “unseen” and the capacity of our minds to call into being things that should not be here – into their full, and hopefully thrilling potential.