I thought about only including historical fiction in my “haunting books” this year, but a few novels set in current times haunted me more—because their plots are so similar to what we see in the news all too often. These novels are Luckiest Girl Alive, by Jessica Knoll, This Is Where It Ends, by Marieke Nijkamp, and Truly Madly Guilty, by Liane Moriarty.
Each of these books is haunting enough for a dark autumn night when the wind blows hard and you want to hole up inside with a wood fire. Just be sure there’s someone close by to comfort you when you finish, because the books themselves are disconcerting enough to make you rethink your worldview.
WARNING: THERE ARE SOME SPOILERS IN THIS POST
Both Luckiest Girl Alive and This is Where It Ends deal with school shootings. Luckiest Girl Alive also deals with bullying, sexual assault, and other problems teenagers face today. We know from the beginning that the protagonist, TifAni FaNelli (yes, the strange capitalizations in her name are deliberate—Yuck) survives the shooting incident, but we come to see how ironic the title is—TifAni’s tale shows she is far from lucky, though she is alive. We do know from the beginning that TifAni has somehow moved beyond what happened to her in high school, because she tells the story as a 28-year-old back in her home town to participate in a documentary about the school shooting,
I found TifAni’s high-school story compelling in an “I hate to . . . . can’t wait to . . . see what comes next” sort of way. One tragedy after another befalls poor TifAni, and some of the situations she encounters are truly ugly, which is why the book haunts me. Ultimately, she became a high-school heroine in a violent and surprising way—though it takes a long time for Knoll to tell the reader that.
I did not find TifAni’s story as an adult once she “made something of herself” (she goes to Wellesley, becomes a magazine writer, and gets engaged to an “old money” guy) nearly as satisfying as seeing her finally take command of her situation in high school. In fact, I never did like TifAni as a character—she’s the epitome of ambition and self-deception. Even though I knew she was only trying to move beyond her terrible high-school experience, it left me cold.
TifAni rekindles a former crush—I won’t say any more than that. But this relationship is likely to cause harm to others, even if it allows TifAni to “find herself.” In other words, her redemption is not without its own problems. Knoll never confronts the morality of the choices TifAni makes as an adult—it is as if Knoll believes TifAni’s self-actualization is all that matters. But even as she comes to terms with her past, TifAni is still a bitch.
Knoll’s voice in Luckiest Girl Alive is strong. I think she nails the high school “mean girl” speak, as well as TifAni’s adult voice. I just wish Knoll had built a more likable protagonist.
This Is Where It Ends was even more haunting than Luckiest Girl Alive in recounting in real time what happened during the school shooting. Any book that involves killing 39 students and wounding 25 more is bound to be haunting. The entire book takes place during 54 minutes of the shooting as terror reigns while the students and faculty try to escape.
The descriptions are vivid, which adds to the haunting nature of the book, but the characters were somewhat confusing, in that it was hard to know which brother/sister pair was which. Most of the characters wore a large V for victim sign on their foreheads, and they weren’t very deeply drawn. Of course, in 54 minutes of horror, it’s hard to give very deep backstories for the characters. But because the characters weren’t depicted in much depth, I found it hard to care as much as I wanted to when they were injured or killed. Unfortunately, Nijkamp’s book ends with the resolution of the shooting, and we don’t see what befalls the survivors. Therefore, the book mostly haunted me as I read (it’s a quick read), but the characters didn’t stay with me.
Frankly, the real news stories about the recent Las Vegas mass shooting have been more haunting than these two school-shooting novels. I cared more about the real people I never met than the characters I spent 300 pages with.
The third book I’m featuring in this post, Truly Madly Guilty, has as its theme how different people at the same event can have different perspectives on what happened. Each character at an impromptu summer barbeque sees the event through his or her own backstory and baggage—and imbues the event with the moral impact his or her experience brings. Moriarty does an excellent job of developing six very complicated adults, plus some children.
In this case, each character feels guilty about what happened for a different reason. In the end, who caused the tragedy? We aren’t certain. All the adults are somehow at fault, and yet none of them were really responsible.
In fact, it’s not clear what the tragedy is. The reader suspects what happened, but it isn’t until the midpoint of the book that it is revealed—and it’s not as bad as it could have been. And then there’s a twist at the end that shows how another tragedy occurred—one that was more serious. Who was guilty of what? Though they were all truly guilty of something. A haunting story, indeed.
I thought Moriarty overplayed her hand at delaying the revelations—what happened wasn’t as earth-shattering as I feared through the first half of the book. The novel isn’t nearly as good as Gone Girl, though Moriarty’s book also involves unreliable narrators each recounting their own version of events. Despite the book’s shortcomings, I liked how Moriarty wove together the story of three marriages (and two of the couples had children, so their four methods of parenting) and multiple friendships and other relationships among the characters. I didn’t particularly like or relate to any of the characters (though they are all believable), but I think that was because the book depicts them at their worst. Or thinking of themselves at their worst.
That’s all the space I have for haunting books this year. Maybe I’ll use some of my 2017 reads next year. Until then, . . .
What’s the most haunting book you’ve read recently?