Reed Books: The Toll

Jess Reed, Editor

The Toll by Cherie Priest was my next venture into Southern gothicism, with a promising tagline and narrative. The story takes place in a small town in Georgia, following a couple on their honeymoon. Driving to their campsite, they pass over a bridge that’s not on any map. Blacking out, the husband wakes up on the road to find his wife missing, and no bridge in sight.

The spooky, supernatural elements of the story were really compelling; the fact that everyone in the town accepted the existence of ghosts, of talking dolls, of dogs in trees. Still, the book as a whole was a bit of a let down for me, especially coming off of the success that was Anderson’s The Boatman’s Daughter.

For one, almost all of the characters felt incredibly dull. I often had a hard time differentiating between Titus and Dave, two male characters, because neither of them seemed to have any defining personality traits. The dialogue was expository, too, with characters often saying exactly what they feel. Actually, that was my problem with this book as a whole. A lot of time, Priest would explicitly write in a connection that would have been more fun to discover on your own – it almost feels insulting to the reader’s intelligence at that point. 

Also, much of the plot was left unresolved. I don’t mind that in itself, but if you can’t have a character-driven narrative, at least have a plot-driven narrative. Instead, Priest gives up on exploring the eldritch elements of the town, or exploring Jess’s gray morality, or giving anyone a satisfying ending. The deaths are off-screen and unemotional.

Overall, The Toll wasn’t actively bad, but it wasn’t actively good, either. For such an interesting premise, the mediocre dialogue, characterization, and exposition were quite the letdown.