Monday, December 21, 2015
Review: PRETTY GIRLS
Reviewed by Stephanie Jones
Anyone with even a glancing knowledge of Karin Slaughter’s oeuvre will read the title of her latest standalone novel, PRETTY GIRLS, not as a cheery allusion but a portent of doom. Indeed, the concept of victim-blaming – the mishap, or worse, that befalls the girl “too pretty for her own good” – is a subtle drum-beat throughout this story about a woman searching for the truth about the closest people in her life.
It would be a great shame to spoil any of the shocks or surprises Slaughter artfully constructs, and this review will give away little detail of the plot or intricate interrelationships of the characters. The central figure of Claire Scott, who is as close to a heroine as Slaughter will allow in this bleak milieu, has been coddled by a mix of extreme privilege and willful ignorance through her 18-year marriage to Paul, a successful architect with tendencies toward obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Their blissful union ends one night at the hands of a knife-wielding mugger in an alley, and Claire is set adrift emotionally and almost literally. Her own home is a mystery to her, as the product of an architect’s fancy for the most advanced, state-of-the-art technological, security and material features.
Paul’s death is not the first tragedy Claire has faced, however. Her sister Julia, the eldest of Sam and Helen Carroll’s three daughters, disappeared in 1991. Helen determinedly pursued her life; Sam became another tragic casualty; Claire was saved by her relationship with Paul. Now, though, she’s on her own, and another young woman has vanished in circumstances that resemble Julia’s case. Claire doesn’t so much start asking questions about her spouse as have them thrown in her face. There’s such a thing as being too comfortable, and Claire has to pay the piper.
Slaughter writes women well – her most recent novel, the standalone COP TOWN – was a ferocious portrayal of sisterhood without a whiff of cliché – and Claire, along with Lydia Delgado, a single mother with 17 years’ sobriety, are wholly authentic as individuals and in their relationship to one another.
PRETTY GIRLS is not as overtly sociopolitical in tone as COP TOWN, a study of the incendiary, hyper-corrupt culture of the Atlanta Police Department of the 1970s, but it does betray acute empathy, even concern, for the plight of women. Statistically, the likelihood of any given woman falling foul of the kind of men PRETTY GIRLS describes is low, but, Slaughter seems to say, expand your field of vision just a little and you will see a world full of wrongdoing against women, much of it sexual in nature and almost all of it inflicted by men.
The novel is concerned not just with the crimes done to ‘pretty girls’ but those who commit them, described as “voracious gluttons who devour every part of a woman, then clean their teeth with the bones.” It’s a challenging, even exhausting, read, because of the acute relentlessness of its angle. Everything is shown from the perspective of a victim, and there are graphic descriptions of evil acts.
But aside from the hard-driving plot, PRETTY GIRLS is a fascinating foray into gender politics, ranging from a detective’s smooth dismissal of an anguished Claire to the diverse ways in which men and women react to romantic rejection. Slaughter is no fancy prose stylist – her writing is blunt and full of force, all the better to propel the narrative – and her work is not for those who prefer their crime fiction glossy. For the rest of us, she delivers a darkly thrilling revenge tale with lessons about the enduring power of family.
Stephanie Jones is the book reviewer for Coast FM radio in New Zealand, and a member of the judging panel for the 2016 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. You can read many of her Coast FM reviews here.