Evie Green’s debut, We Hear Voices, is an absorbing blend of mystery, horror and the supernatural. On the surface, Green’s story revolves around a child and his sinister imaginary friend, but a much larger mystery is lurking underneath. Set in an alarmingly familiar world, We Hear Voices takes place in London during a devastating pandemic. While symptoms vary from patient to patient, government officials refer to it simply as the “flu.” But, unlike Covid-19, Green’s pandemic is masking something eerie, and borderline supernatural. The smartly plotted mystery at the novel’s core pulls the reader forward through a series of twists and turns that keep us guessing until the last page.
In We Hear Voices, the “flu,” or the J5X virus, has devastated an already dystopian near-future. Unfortunately, this virus has proven to be particularly merciless to children. So, when young Billy begins to exhibit symptoms, his mother Rachel is devastated. The mortality rate is so dire that the government simply sends the family a kit of personal protective equipment to make a quarantine room for the patient and tells them to hope for the best. There’s nothing more they can do. Either Billy will survive or he won’t.
After weeks hovering near death, Billy miraculously begins to recover. Strangely, he credits his new imaginary friend “Delfy” with helping him survive. At first Rachel is thankful for this figment of his imagination. Delfy makes Billy get out of bed and walk in the mornings, she pushes him to read and stay engaged in school; Delfy seems to be invested in keeping Billy healthy. However, Rachel’s mother, Orla, and Rachel’s 16-year-old daughter (and Billy’s older sister), Nina, aren’t convinced. Orla is certain that Delfy is a demonic possession trying to take control of Billy. Nina’s theory is more scientific: she thinks that Delfy and the virus are connected.
Still, after Billy’s recovery, the family attempts to get back to their normal lives. Rachel is stretched thin caring for Billy and her newborn daughter, Beth. Rachel’s new husband, Al, is busy addressing London’s sustainable housing crisis. Nina is in training to be a settler on the first colony in outer space. Meanwhile, Delfy begins to persuade Billy to take more violent actions. At first, these actions are easily dismissed as childhood pranks: Billy fills a lunchbox with spiders and starts asking disturbing questions in school. Then, things take a dark turn, when Delfy tells Billy to strangle his grandmother, and he listens. Desperate to get Billy the treatment he needs, the family places Billy in an experimental trial. The trial is run by Graham, a scientist who has been tracking and studying the effects of the J5X virus in recovered children. While battling his own visions of his recently deceased wife, Graham tries to track the source of the voices in the children. He also wants to figure out what the voices want. So far, all the children who hear voices have turned lethal. Now, the children seem to be planning something big.
Green’s plotting and her worldbuilding are the true strengths of We Hear Voices. Each separate plotline weaves together into a surprising whole, and the genuinely surprising twists keep the reader on their toes. The book is most successful when it uses that momentum and sticks to a brisk pace. When it lags, the reader can sometimes get ahead of the story. But, thankfully, the plot is intriguing enough to keep the story taut.
Also, it’s impossible to read this book and not draw comparisons with our current circumstances. Since Green wrote the book pre-Covid, the social commentary and real-world parallels don’t land too much “on the nose”. Things are just different enough that it’s still possible to get wrapped up in the narrative. And the social and economic issues Green is engaging with here are in line with the world she’s created and give weight to the stakes her characters face. Al fights for fair housing laws and engages with the effects of the sustainable housing crisis, while the threat of his own family’s eviction is ever-present. Rachel’s constant tally of the family’s food reserves reflects the daily reality of food scarcity many families face. The space program highlights the ticking clock of climate change and presents reality where humanity has acted too late. Looming over this entire narrative is the idea that the world’s years are numbered, and humanity needs to look for a hospitable planet in space. This kind of worldbuilding, rooted in stakes and character, is excellent. Also, Green uses the near-future setting of her story to her benefit. By including slight advances in technology, like deep space travel, Green provides a needed, albeit thin, separation between We Hear Voices and our current world.
For me, the book is most successful as a mystery. While the horror elements of “malevolent imaginary friends” and a deadly virus are present, I wasn’t frightened by them. I was more engaged in figuring out their connection to each other. In my experience, horror is rooted in a visceral response and We Hear Voices hit me as more of an intellectual read. I think this is a symptom of my main issue with the book. While the plot was engaging, sometimes I wasn’t let into the main character’s thoughts, opinions, or emotions about what was happening to them. This meant that certain characters’ actions were surprising because I didn’t track the emotional journey that led them there. Instead, I had more insight into the events of the plot and what was going on with the world of the book. Preferring plotting over character interiority is a way to keep the plot moving; however, for a story centered around a suspicious imaginary friend, I wanted more of an emotional check-in with Billy and his family. Still, this isn’t enough to detract from a story that is ultimately a satisfying read. If there had been more interiority given to the characters, I think those moments could have filled the reader with more lingering dread and given We Hear Voices more of an edge.
Fans of mysteries or thrillers, who like their horror with a side of social commentary should check out We Hear Voices. Despite its flaws, I enjoyed the ride and was intrigued by the mystery, premise, and solid plotting throughout. Even though a pandemic is heavily featured in the book, it quickly becomes clear that the virus is the least of Billy’s problems. Evie Green, clearly, has interesting stories to tell and We Hear Voices is a nice introduction to her brand of storytelling. It’s exactly what the doctor ordered for a dark night in.