Title: The Excursion
Author: T. O. Paine
Following years of struggle and abandonment, life seems to be turning around for Charly Highsmith and Jacob, her autistic brother. Gifted her father’s holiday cabin in the Colorado mountains, Charly organizes a reunion with her cousins. But is the cabin hers? Or is someone else planning an expedition?
One of the wonderful things about The Excursion is how deceptively smooth it reads. There is such intelligent consideration and depth to the novel, which employs a number of literary techniques, that it becomes completely involving and not just as a thriller.
Paine has brought something studied and personal to his writing. That often clouds the reader’s experience but, in this case, his objectivity combined with the lean and sophisticated prose has generated a textured and investable novel.
The opening chapter resonates with unresolved tension, heightened by Charly’s taut first-person, internal monologue. She mentally darts among her memories in a bitter, weary voice, inviting immediate curiosity as she drops several intriguing, yet credible, backstory bombs.
The second chapter introduces Randall Thorne. Paine does not overstate Randall—this first glimpse is somewhat pathetic, yet by the end of the novel he is vibrating with barely-contained insanity.
His chapters are written from a close third-person perspective and in the present tense, lending a detached but visual impact. Physical details matter and Paine ensures that Randall’s imposing presence and precise mannerisms beat a tattoo into the reader’s brain.
While the reader keeps one eye on escalating events in the cabin, the past and present resentments of the characters begin to unfold, and historical grievances start trickling into the contemporary action.
There are recurring motifs that echo, literally and figuratively, anchoring the past to the present. Chapter seven takes the reader back to what was essentially the end of Charly’s childhood during a July spent at the cabin. This hot, sepia-toned bittersweet episode is in direct contrast to the majority of the novel with its isolating snowy landscape.
Rich in foreshadowing, the flashback chapters are grittily realistic. These unflinching interludes are never gratuitous but dovetail poignantly, disclosing the reasons for Charly’s tough vulnerability and her unwavering investment in the cabin.
Her relationship with cousin Amanda is toxic, and there are conflicts with her other cousin, Cameron. The cousins exhibit worrying elements of unreliability and instability and, consequently, keep the pages turning.
Neurodivergent Jacob is brilliantly depicted. Both behavior and dialogue read superbly believably, and his unpredictability and heightened fearful awareness feed heavily into the reader’s apprehension. He could be viewed as a liability, but his complex needs drive the story.
Paine maintains a well-judged pace, brisk with panic, and understandably urgent as it hurtles toward the almost cinematic finale with the blizzard conditions used to bone-chillingly excellent effect. Notwithstanding the contextual layers that steadily build for each individual, the story never becomes too weighted or frenetic.
Nonetheless, there are a couple of minor strands that seem unnecessary. The flashback scene involving the green dumpster appeared fantastical. Hector was a little obvious, and Kennedy’s electrical engineering prowess, although welcome, was possibly too unexpected.
In many respects, The Excursion is a straightforward read. Paine gives the reader what they want albeit with a growing hunch that something or someone else is in the background. And, indeed, it provides a final, fairly unanticipated reveal that worked the right side of plausibility.
The Excursion is an accomplished and tightly-plotted novel using several genre tropes in fresh, effective ways to create a compelling, first-rate thriller. Paine is a naturally gifted suspense writer and has produced a book that is compulsively readable, nail-bitingly intense, and impossible to put down.
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