Whenever I get my hands on a book by Karin Slaughter, I always have this feeling I should put on a seatbelt before I crack the cover. She tends to nibble away at the edge of your comfort zone with stories that are intense, emotional & disturbing. This one is no different.
The book opens in 1989 with a brutal day in the life of the Quinn family. Rusty, the father, is typically absent. He’s a small town lawyer who specializes in successfully defending the dregs of society while dodging death threats. It’s just Gamma & daughters Charlotte & Samantha at home that afternoon when 2 masked men come calling. By the time they’re through Gamma is dead, Sam has been shot in the head & Charlie is hiding at a neighbouring farm. The family has been gutted & Rusty makes some snap decisions that will haunt them for years to come.
In present day, 41 year old Charlie is a lawyer who just made a huge mistake. She goes to the local school to set things right. Unfortunately, teenager Kelly Wilson chose the same day to stalk the hallways with a gun. By the time the dust settles 2 people are dead, Charlie is injured & Kelly is arrested. The police response is a tad enthusiastic to say the least & in the days that follow, they form a blue wall to make sure their version of events is accepted.
Rusty, of course, can’t wait to defend Kelly but Charlie is blindsided by memories of the last time she was held at gunpoint. As she begins to unravel, it’s clear there is one thing she needs. Her sister.
We revisit the1989 attack several times during the course of the book. Charlie & Sam alternate as narrators to give their versions of what happened. A few more details leak out each time & as the whole truth slowly emerges, we begin to grasp the numerous connections to present day events.
But it’s not just these events that put you through the wringer. The cast also provokes strong reactions. Slaughter specializes in putting her characters through ordeals that showcase their strengths & weaknesses. As the story progresses, they can morph from good guy to bad & back again, radically affecting how you feel about them. Charlie & Sam are good examples. Both are strong personalities & at several points I wanted to knock their heads together. But there were also times when I wanted to take them to the nearest bar & get them guttered enough to forget what they’d endured.
Rusty comes across as a grandstander who talks a lot but says little. I spent much of the story rolling my eyes at his chatter, frustrated by the way he treated the girls. But just as you grow tired of his obscure quotes & homilies, he’ll slip up & reveal the man behind the persona. From one particularly poignant scene...
“What a rapist takes from a woman is her future. The person she is going to become, who she is supposed to be, is gone. In many ways, it’s worse than murder, because he has killed the potential person, eradicated that potential life, yet she still lives and breathes….”
Several other characters deserve mention. Charlie’s estranged husband Ben is a sympathetic guy who gets dragged into the whole mess. Rusty’s eccentric assistant Lenore has known the girls all their lives & can be counted on for no-nonsense advice. But it’s Kelly who breaks your heart every time she appears. She’s from “the holler”, a trailer park on the edge of town. Her social status & learning disabilities have made her a prime target for mean girls & the cliche of a disaffected youth who finally snapped has the media salivating.
My only complaint (and it’s teeny) is the last 20% or so. Was it badly written? Heck no, it’s freaking fabulous. It’s more a case of everything coming to a head at once. Following a pivotal plot twist, it’s like someone opened a cage full of restless clues & they all came out screaming at the same time. So much is revealed that you’re left reeling, trying to keep up as your brain makes a dozen connections. It has a profound effect on what you thought you knew & you may need to take a moment & look at some of the characters with fresh eyes. There are some jaw droppers here. Hidden agendas, secrets & lies will alter what Charlie & Sam had believed for so long.
This is a layered, engrossing & sometimes uncomfortable read. It’s an unflinching look at the lives of those judged with prejudice because of their social status & family history. There’s rarely a dull moment & you’ll fly through the pages to discover the fates of these characters you’ve come to care about. Just a heads up: there are scenes that are fairly graphic but not gratuitous as they inform the story on several levels.
So if you’re a fan of gritty character driven drama, I’ll just leave you with 2 pieces of advice. Get it. And buckle up.