This review is just in time before the spooky Halloween fall season turns irrevocably into the winter holiday season. The Dark Beneath the Ice by Amelinda Bérubé is a kind of paranormal queer horror YA novel by this Ottawa-based debut author. It’s definitely the kind of book meant to be read on a long dark October or November night.
The Dark Beneath the Ice was a bit of a mixed bag for me. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t. Let’s talk about one of the good things first! This book is set in Ottawa, which I found quite different and refreshing. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a book set in the Canadian capital! Having never visited Ottawa, it was fun to get a chance to experience a novel set there. In particular, the Ottawa river that is such a prominent feature of the city plays a not too insignificant role in The Dark Beneath the Ice (hence the ice). The strong presence of the river gave the book quite a particular feeling of place, but one that’s probably different than what you might think about Ottawa, which I appreciate.
You’re probably wondering what this is all about with the river. Let me start at the beginning: Marianne is a teenager who’s having a rough time. Her parents have recently separated and she just quit doing high-level ballet, for reasons Bérubé slowly reveals. But that’s not even the worst of it. Lately Marianne has started to feel like she can’t trust her own mind. She’s losing time, “waking up” in the middle of her day with no recollection of how the time has passed. She’s having nightmares involving a dark creepy river covered in ice that are increasingly terrifying. She’s being faced with evidence that she’s done things that don’t seem like her at all.
Are you scared yet?? This all sounds like a good psychological horror. I think it might be scary for some people. For me, the scariness factor was a bit disappointing unfortunately. I was hoping it would be as scary as the synopsis promised it would be, but I wasn’t scared at all! Am I tougher than I thought after all? I’m not sure. All I know is I wanted this book to give me that deliciously creeped out Halloween feeling and it did not. Maybe it did / will for you? Let me know!
I think Bérubé was going for some ambiguity about whether the haunting was real or just in Marianne’s head. This is the most interesting kind of haunted story to me, and I don’t mind and I think might even prefer if it’s never clear whether the supernatural element is “real” or not. (Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is a great example of this. It’s also one of my all-time favourite scary (queer) books). However, The Dark Beneath the Ice it didn’t succeed at this ambiguity at all for me.
The Dark Beneath the Ice also felt like one of those books where the main character doesn’t take much action and the aimless plot just kind of happens to her. I wanted Marianne to be more take charge about this crazy scary thing taking over her life! I also wished the plot was less rambly.
But … (here’s the final compliment sandwich part of this review) there’s a cute lesbian romance side plot! Marianne connects early on in the book with Rhiannon, aka Ron (haha, what’s more high school baby dyke than giving yourself a boy’s name as a nickname, eh?). It’s not a spoiler to say lesbian feelings are soon had! Ron is a cool goth girl who also used to play rugby (and still remembers how to tackle someone). She also has a mom who’s a psychic; those skills come in quite handy with the mysterious haunting and all. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that Ron was definitely my favourite character.
I can see The Dark Beneath the Ice appealing to teens more than it did to me. They are, after all, the intended audience for this YA book. Check it out—whether you’re a teen or an adult—and let me know what you thought!