A Book Review of Return To White Catcliff by Inna Val Helm
A complex, emotional tale of life, death, parallel worlds, and the bonds which transcend them all.
Précis of Return to White Catcliff
Return to White Catcliff is Inna Val Helm’s debut novel presented by an unforgettable cast of characters. Fantasy and reality merge amid elements of anthropomorphism, eternal life, and dimensional existence.
It tells the story of thirtysomething Nick Taylor and his black Lab, BD, who stumble upon a convenience store robbery in a suburb of present-day Chicago and are left for dead. They awaken to find themselves in the tranquil village of White Catcliff, where inhabitants faced certain death immediately prior to arrival.
The antagonist is VEIL (Volunteer Eleemosynary Institute and League), which presents as a humanitarian organization, but its true agenda is steeped in pillage and plunder. Nick’s mission is to stop its proliferation. This means he must not only leave his new home, but of greater consequence, he must travel alone, leaving his best friend behind.
Full Book Description & Summary
If Nick Taylor stood beside four other thirty-something white males in a police lineup, men with medium brown hair and eyes, uninspired budget haircuts, average weight, and neither too short nor too tall, an eyewitness would be hard-pressed to differentiate him from the others. He is neither an intellectual nor a dunce. He is not physically weak by any means but no marathon man either. Along with wife, Shelley, and black Lab, BD, Nick resides in a western Chicago suburb.
One fateful Friday after he and BD return from their morning constitutional, Shelley is livid due to the dog’s overnight misbehavior vis-à-vis chewed leather pumps. That evening she issues her spouse an ultimatum to choose between her and the family dog. To clear his head, Nick tethers the Lab, and they wander neighborhood streets for almost two hours before stumbling upon a convenience store robbery. As a result, Nick is shot three times in the chest at close range, and the getaway car’s driver intentionally rams BD.
When Nick opens his eyes, he is no longer splayed on cracked, greasy pavement or strapped to a hospital gurney but rather rests on a bed of plush green grass, nestled between a babbling brook, and a precipitous cliff.
The stench of oozing hot motor oil is absent as is the incessant odor of an industrial-strength disinfectant. He wiggles his toes, challenges his arms and legs, and probes his chest. Everything is intact, but life as he knew it had ended, and the door to a new existence was now unlocked and open, inviting passage.
Ushered from the wilderness location by feline guide, Theodore, Nick and BD take up residence in the nearby village of White Catcliff, sharing a cottage with Theodore, a town official; his sibling, Peaches, accomplished chef and collector of dainty figurines; and Nora, the brothers’ hard-luck adoptee. With a whole slew of unanswered questions, Nick has no choice but to accept the strangeness of his new reality. Soon, at the town market, he meets Kristina Tedington, formerly an emergency ward physician in a metropolitan London hospital.
She arrived in White Catcliff following a fall from the fourth floor balcony of her flat. Kristina and Nick initiate an investigation of the precise whereabouts and nature of White Catcliff and find that most denizens also arrived following grim episodes of mortal danger.
These inhabitants include a salacious letter carrier from the Ozarks, Jeff Croneweeds, shot while delivering mail; a distinguished Frenchman, Monsieur Roussel, guillotine escapee and victim of an explosion, along with his mischievous primate confidant, Bonaparte; a Viking matron, Astrid, transferred during a murderous attack led by a fellow tribal member; and Suko Hakamodo, honored general of the Imperial Japanese Army who escaped nuclear annihilation on August 9, 1945.
The duo subsequently discover the hidden diary of Alexa Novaly, prominent aristocratic scientist and daughter of a leading eighteenth century industrialist from the vicinity of the Ural Mountains. Secrets revealed by the text of the disinterred diary lead to the cryptic revelation that Nick actually visited White Catcliff in the remote past.
The diary further served to acquaint Nick with key members of the group known by its acronym, VEIL: Lydia Rakowski, Alosiyus Van Crookhausen, and Edward Starbuck. The Volunteer Eleemosynary Institute and League purports to be a worldwide humanitarian organization with stated goals of saving lives, reducing human suffering, and resolving conflict.
Their nominal peacemakers, missionaries, independent observers, research scientists, and aid workers enjoy unrestricted access to virtually all nations. The truth is VEIL exists solely to gain power and pedal influence, often employing weapons of mass destruction, spreading epidemics, and backing political and religious uprisings.
At stake is each side’s acquisition and use of a device colloquially known as a ‘mirror,’ which enables direct interdimensional travel to parallel universes. There are three such units in existence. Alexa has one safely stowed away in the French Alps. Another is located in White Catcliff awaiting Nick’s upcoming mission. VEIL controls the third unit and plans to develop an entire fleet. It’s crucial they fail; this is the crux of Nick Taylor’s mission. But there is one drawback. In order to conserve the chemical element, uralium, the mirror’s powerhouse fuel, Nick must travel alone, leaving his best friend, BD, behind.
Our Review of Return to White Catcliff
Nicholas “Nick” Taylor is your average thirty-something, middle-class, American male. With a wife, a house, a steady job, and a loving dog named BD, it seems that he has nothing to complain about, and yet he is not fulfilled. Nick goes through life, day after day, with a mind numbed by a constant, comfortable routine.
Then one night, while Nick is out walking BD, he and his faithful companion suffer an early and tragic demise during a convenience store robbery. When he awakes, he finds that he and BD are in a field outside the strange yet familiar town of White Catcliff, being rescued by a talking cat named Theodore.
From anthropomorphized animals to residents from throughout history, something is not quite right about White Catcliff. The longer Nick stays, the more mysterious the entire situation becomes and the more questions he has. What is White Catcliff? How did Nick—and the other residents—get there? And what is the history behind the journal hidden within Nick’s eighteenth-century sac de voyage?
The truth is far stranger than Nick could have ever imagined and will force him to reevaluate his views of the universe, himself, and his destiny. Yet with this great responsibility comes great personal sacrifice, one that could leave him stranded in a parallel world all alone. Will Nick be willing to take that plunge?
Return to White Catcliff by Inna Val Helm uses an entertaining and compelling story, complete with gorgeous illustrations, to explore the complex subjects of parallel worlds and non-linear movement through spacetime.
Helm masterfully drops hints to the mystery of Nick and his relationship with White Catcliff, gradually pulling readers along until they are so enthralled with the plot that the difficulty of understanding the spacetime elements will not hinder their progress. It does not make these topics too much easier to digest, but the emotional investment and intrigue inspired by the story makes the read much more enjoyable.
The most engaging aspect of the novel, however, is not the plot or the concept but the characters. Each of the major characters has distinct personalities and histories, including the animals. From no-nonsense Astrid with the heart-wrenching backstory to the smart-mouthed grinder monkey Bonaparte, Helm introduces characters of all backgrounds, upbringings, and temperaments. Readers cannot help but to engage with these characters as though they are real.
Astrid’s story of how she arrived in White Catcliff will break hearts, and Joe, the mailman, will make you want to smack him for his womanizing remarks and actions. No character is perfect nor completely flawed but feel like real people that you can love, hate, or love to hate.
That being said, this book is not a light read. In addition to tackling the complex topic of spacetime, Helm utilizes flowery, descriptive language in the narrative. For the most part, this prose creates beautiful, vivid imagery.
However, it can also slow the narrative’s overall pace and occasionally loses the reader’s attention. Helm’s well-developed characters and mysterious, twisting plot always pull the reader back in, but for some readers, this kind of writing can be tiring.
Action lovers might find this book a bit dull. A good third of the book passes before getting to the meat of the subject, and even then this novel is not action-packed. Nevertheless, this story is intellectually stimulating with emotionally-engaging characters and detailed world-building.
At around 300 pages, Return to White Catcliff by Inna Val Helm is not a quick read, but readers who like a character-driven mixture of mystery and fantasy will still want to jump at the chance to read it.
Title: Return To White Catcliff
Author: Inna Val Helm
Publisher: IVX Books
Published: January 2019
About the Author
Inna Val Helm has served as a trial consultant and linguistic translator in various venues, and her resulting familiarity with courtrooms and legal proceedings is evident throughout certain passages and illustrative images of Return to White Catcliff.
The writer’s own vivid out-of-body experience inspired said novel and is largely responsible for its conceptual content. Helm’s creation of the nemesis, VEIL (Volunteer Eleemosynary Institute and League), is loosely based upon the world’s political climate over the past eighty years.
A student of the mind, Inna Val Helm has studied the human and animal psyche and related philosophy across Europe as well as the eastern seaboard of the United States, resulting in a litany of fully developed characters.
Please note: we have recently purchased USBookViews.com, where this review first appeared. We are re-publishing this review as a service to the author.
The editor of The Readers Loft, and pursuer of relatively interesting information, Simon has a Masters Degree in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales, and is a photo-journalist and writer whose written and photographic work has been represented by the AFP news agency and appeared in newspapers across Europe and Asia.