Thursday, March 24, 2016

Review of What She Knew by Gilly Macmillan

Let me start by saying that there are no spoiler alerts in this blog (I hate spoilers!!!) but I will issue a strong warning:  Reading this novel may require a strong dose of caffeine to function the next day because you will really be tempted to stay up late into the night to finish!  I turned the last page at 12:48 am and it was well worth it!

Rachel Jenner is still reeling from her divorce from her successful pediatric surgeon husband, John, who left the day after Christmas for a younger co-worker.  Nearly a year later, she is still struggling in her role as a single mother when a routine walk through the woods with their son Ben turns into every parents' worst nightmare.  She allows him to run ahead to the swing and when she arrives, he is gone.  His dog, Skittle, later reappears with a broken leg and the massive police search that ensues soon finds the clothes that Ben was wearing stuffed into a bag.  As the hours turn into days, Rachel and John are driven to the edge of insanity as they fear the worst.  The media frenzy, driven by social media, quickly turns on Rachel and casts blame and suspicion on her, heaping on to the guilt that she feels for allowing Ben to run ahead.  She is castigated online, journalists camp out in front of her home, and the public judgment escalates into vandalism and violence.   Making matters even worse, as the list of credible suspects emerges, Rachel realizes that even those closest to her are not who they seem and the number of people that she can trust shrinks daily.  Rachel's narration of the unraveling of her life is juxtaposed with the story of Jim Clemo, the lead investigator on the team searching for Ben.   His own secrets, as well as the personal relationship that he has with one of the female officers on the case, turn out to play a pivotal role in the search.

Gilly Macmillan is a wife, mother, photographer, and lecturer of photography.  She grew up in the United Kingdom and as a teen, moved with her family to Northern California.  She returned to the UK for college, earning degrees in Art and Art History from Bristol University and Courtald Institute of Art in London.  She lives in Bristol with her family.  What She Knew is her first novel.

What She Knew is a thrilling debut novel filled with plot twists, long-buried secrets, and thoughtful insight into what happens when unexpected tragedy upends the lives of a family, and how that tragedy reveals how little we often really know about those closest to us.  The opening line of the novel drives this point home, "in the eyes of others, we're often not who we imagine ourselves to be". Macmillan creates a realistic, introspective protagonist in Rachel, one whom readers can sympathize with despite her admitted shortcomings.  Even with Rachel's first-person disclosure however, there are still things about herself that she  doesn't realize and that are slowly revealed as the search for Ben continues.  The novel is also a quiet commentary on modern day social media and how it is used to allow people to anonymously pass judgment and make statements that they most likely wouldn't say face-to-face.  The Internet allows us to indulge our rubbernecking tendencies-that nearly universal human trait of being horrified yet secretly entertained by the tragedies of others.  As Rachel puts it, "we all love to be thrilled by the vicarious experience of other people's ghastly lives after all".   What She Knew is a tightly written, well-paced thriller that represents a more than worthy first effort from Macmillan.  Readers should look forward to more work from this new author.

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