Review: Pah by Orla Owen (2021)


Susan Brown is trapped. She lives in nurses’ accommodation she hates, on the run from a past she detests, desperate for a future she can’t afford. Yet.

Calton Jonas is lost. He travels across the country, from beach to city, settling in a small town with a job at the morgue.

Jeffrey Jeffreys is happy as long as life provides him with enough whiskey and beer.

Their lives cross. Old wounds open. Susan takes control but not all of them can survive…


First things first, Orla Owen is one of the nicest people on Book Twitter – endlessly supportive, a real champion of other authors and of bookbloggers. While I was obviously delighted to be offered a copy of Pah in exchange for an honest review (many thanks to Orla), there was, therefore, a small moment of trepidation before I started reading – what if I didn’t like it?! She’s so nice!

Fortunately, and I say this with complete honesty, I loved Orla’s book. Also, unlike her, it is NOT NICE. I mean that as a compliment! Ooh, it is gloriously dark, folks, and the characters, especially Susan, are deeply unsettling and complex. Susan is an utterly fascinating protagonist – her coldness and her calculating nature make it hard to find any redeeming features, but every time we get a glimpse of her past, it becomes more and more obvious why she is the way she is. The small slivers of her childhood that Owen offers up are just enough to keep the reader from detesting her – how could anyone emerge from that upbringing unscathed? And there is also, again, let’s be honest here, a kind of peverse pleasure to be had in watching a character who so deliberately and cruelly subverts the norm, who takes self-preservation to a whole new level, so much so that at times I almost had a grudging respect for her. Susan really is one of the most interesting characters I’ve come across, and in herself is a strong argument against the whole ‘protagonists should be likeable’ thing. No, they should be interesting, and Susan is certainly that.

Jeffrey is also pretty awful, but he provides much of the novel’s dark humour. Calton, though, is different – he isn’t exactly a saint, but there’s a sense in which you’re rooting for him more whole-heartedly than Susan, and the delay in their paths crossing makes for a delicious sense of anticipation (even if it made me want to shout “Run, Cal!”). There’s something quite timeless and eerie about the prose in Pah – it’s hard to know exactly when or where this taking place, and it adds a real flavour of mystery and originality. I certainly can’t think of anything I’ve read that I could easily compare to this book.

I really enjoyed the immersive experience of being dipped in Susan’s chilly bitterness, and I also think the book is really bold on the theme of unwanted motherhood. This is something that is being explored more frequently in fiction, and it’s so important – not everyone ‘finds their purpose’ when they become a mother, and although Susan is an extreme example, it is still refreshing to see. I am really excited to note that Orla Owen’s previous novel, The Lost Thumb, has some of the same characters – I will definitely be reading it, and anything else this talented author writes in the future.

PAH by Orla Owen is out now and is available to purchase here.

Do follow Orla on social media: @orlaowenwriting on Twitter, and check out her website:


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