Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Book Review: 'What She Left' by T.R. Richmond

Alice Salmon won an essay contest at fifteen, studied English at university, and became a crusading journalist. She was ethical, passionate, and eager to right wrongs (“a fearless campaigner on crime”). Unfortunately, like her mother, she suffered from recurring bouts of depression, was too sensitive for her own good, and anesthetized herself with alcohol and drugs. After she dies at twenty-five in an apparent accident, the media, her friends and acquaintances, and those who seek to tarnish her memory have a field day analyzing her behavior and personality. One individual, an anthropology professor named Jeremy Cooke, even plans to write a book about her.

Most of “What She Left,” by T. R. Richmond, is written in the form of diary entries, blog postings, emails, letters, newspaper pieces, online articles, and text messages. We observe Alice, the central character, musing about her professional ambitions, family, friendships, and romances. Others baring their souls are Luke Addison, Alice’s boyfriend; the aforementioned Professor Cooke (a weak-willed man who has much to atone for); and Megan Parker, Alice’s best friend since childhood. Gradually, a complex picture emerges. Alice comes across as bright and talented, flighty and self-indulgent, thoughtful and caring, but at times bad-tempered and slow to forgive. She was pretty and popular but could be hard on herself when she was in a dark mood.

Richmond’s novel highlights the power of the media and social networking to fuel speculation and influence public opinion. Like vultures swooping down on carrion, reporters and ordinary citizens feel free to pick over the bones of those no longer around to defend themselves. Another theme is the tendency of the guilt-ridden to hide unpleasant truths from themselves and others. Few of the flawed men and women in this novel earn our admiration or sympathy, but their imperfections make them human. Even the despicable Cooke, who is reptilian, hedonistic, and generally blind to his faults, takes some tentative steps towards redemption. “What She Left” is too long, meandering, and repetitious, and its resolution is unconvincing. However, Richmond’s intriguing format, powerful exploration of how the invasion of personal privacy has become endemic in our society (“the Internet has rewritten the rulebook”), and his look at the dangers of substance abuse among young adults make this a timely and provocative work of fiction.

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

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