Monday, September 4, 2017

Book Review: 'What She Knew' by Gilly Macmillan

"What She Knew," by Gilly Macmillan, takes place in Bristol, England. It opens in November 2013, one year after Rachel Jenner's eight-year-old son, Ben Finch, disappeared during a walk in the woods with his mother. Rachel looks back with dread at those dark days when she did not know if her child was alive or dead. Ben's mother and Detective Inspector Jim Clemo, the officer in charge of the case, take turns discussing their experiences. The DI's futile efforts to find Ben nearly drive him mad. Panic attacks and insomnia, Clemo admits, left him "fetid and dehydrated, wrung out before the day has even begun." The author includes reports from Jim's therapist, Dr. Francesca Manelli, in addition to interviews, transcripts, and other written records relevant to Ben's abduction.

The nightmare begins on October 21, 2012, with Ben and his mom taking a stroll with their dog, Skittle, ten months after Rachel's ex-husband and Ben's dad, John, a pediatric surgeon, walked out on his family. Dr. Finch now lives with his second wife, Katrina, a nutritionist who, according to Rachel, "lured John away." When Ben asks his mom, "Can I run ahead?" so that he can use a rope swing, she agrees. It is a decision that she will bitterly regret. In what seems like the blink of an eye, Ben is nowhere to be found. Trying to keep Rachel on an even keel during her wrenching ordeal are her sister, Nicky, and Rachel's best friend, Laura, a journalist.

This novel is noteworthy for its evocative descriptive writing; penetrating look at familial relationships; portrayal of the corrosive effects of guilt; and examination of the press's tendency to build people up and tear them down. It is disturbing to watch Rachel disintegrate emotionally before our eyes. She shrinks into herself, fearing that she will never lay eyes on her son again. Jim is an ambitious cop, whose intensity and ambition may be a liability in a difficult investigation that will consume a huge amount of time and effort. We ache for Rachel, who is overwhelmed by grief and despair, and also empathize with Jim, who is in over his head. As the story unfolds, the number of suspects multiplies, and the author includes a host of decoys, diversions, and far-fetched revelations. Those who are willing to overlook its excesses and contrivances will enjoy "What She Knew," an absorbing, moving, and impressive debut thriller.

Editor's note: This review was written by Eleanor Bukowsky and has been reposted with permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.