Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Book Review: The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman

The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman 
Mindy Mejia
Quercus, 2017 
I own a copy courtesy of the publisher

In a small town in America, a young woman named Hattie Hoffman is found dead in an abandoned barn.  The Sheriff on duty is Del Goodman-- a Vietnam veteran, and a friend of the Hoffman family.  Del is a good cop, but this case is personal, and his sanity may depend on whether or not he can get justice for Hattie.

Told in three voices, The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman is both a murder mystery and a coming of age novel.

Hattie is a chameleon.  She changes her personality to fit in with the people around her, becoming whatever they want most.  The perfect daughter.  The devoted best friend.  The star pupil.  (In some other countries, the novel is titled Everything You Want Me to Be.)  She is a seventeen year old girl, bright but a bit of an introvert, except when it comes to acting.  The night of her murder, she has been on stage performing in her school's production of Macbeth, and her portrayal of Lady Macbeth has proved to the adults around her that there are hidden depths to Hattie.

Then there is the voice of Peter Lund, Hattie's English teacher and director of the school play.  Peter has moved from Minneapolis so that his wife, Mary Beth, can take care of her elderly mother Elsa.  Elsa refuses to leave the farm where she and her husband had lived all through their married life, and while the arrangement is only supposed to be temporary, Peter watches as his wife slips easily back into the life she left behind.  Feeling like an outsider, Peter turns to online chatrooms, seeking intellectual conversation about books and art, and finds himself embroiled in a digital affair with the charismatic HollyG (as in Holly Golightly- the heroine of Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's.)

The final voice is that of Del Goodman.  While Peter and Hattie's sections span the months leading up to Hattie's death, Del's sections happen after, as he negotiates questioning suspects, digging into the files on Hattie's computer, and the long, painful wait for DNA analysis at the busy Minneapolis crime lab where he has sent all the evidence for testing.  Del finds himself torn between his hurt and anguish over the death of the little girl he once knew, and the truths he uncovers about the young woman she had become in the course of the case.  As all of the pieces slowly begin to fall into place, what we are given is a complex portrait of three emotionally isolated people living in a small town.

This is a stunning, complex novel, akin to Anna North's The Life and Death of Sophie Stark.  It relies on a multi-perspective view of the world which plays with the way that different characters are viewed in different contexts to skew ideas of innocent, guilty, good and bad.  All the while, the book is extremely readable, at times even binge-readable.

By the end of the book, it's clear to see that Hattie Hoffman was a likable sociopath just trying to find her way in the world, and despite the view that readers may have of her behaviour by the end of the book, Mindy Mejia has definitely captured the rift in a community that is created when a young woman is murdered.  The setting of this book- both physical and 'emotional/social' is spot on, and adds to the atmosphere.  I could see this book being adapted for a film easily, and, being an actress, Hattie would probably have liked that.

Filled with intertextual links to books line Jane Eyre, this is a thinking person's mystery, a literary crime, and would probably appeal more to readers of literary fiction than someone craving a straight up mystery.  I found it the perfect blend, and loved getting to know the people as I followed along in the solving of the crime.

The only part of the book which fell flat was related to the ending, and if you haven't read the novel, perhaps now is the time to close the browser and read this interview no more.  The resolution of the book relies on a double twist-- and it simply was not needed.  One twist would have been fine.  The second twist brought the resolution back to a far more basic level and it made everything leading up to its discovery seem like a frustrating waste of words and time. The tragedy of the set up that first twist suggested-- a man in jail after committing to the crime of his wife so that she won't have to raise their baby in jail-- fits perfectly with the rest of the book.  Sure, it's depressing, but it fits.  It was that kind of book.  I love that kind of ending.  But as it was, the new ending was too neat.  Everyone got a fresh start but Hattie (and the killer, of course).

I could forgive the ending, because I enjoyed spending my Sunday curled up with this book, and I think you probably would too, if you've read this far.

I gave this book four stars.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Book Review: We That Are Left by Lisa Bigelow

We That are Left
Lisa Bigelow
Allen and Unwin, 2017
I own a copy courtesy of the publisher

The sinking of the HMAS Sydney was a sobering moment in Australian history.  Mystery and rumour surrounded the loss of the vessel and all 600 + souls on board until the mid-2000s when the wreckage was finally located.  In We That Are Left, the struggles of the loved ones left behind by some of those crew members lost in the tragedy are re-imagined.

We That Are Left is the story of two women.  There is Mae, who is looking forward to her naval engineer husband coming home to spend Christmas with his baby daughter when she hears that his ship, the Sydney is missing.  The other woman, Grace, is a country girl who has come to Melbourne to becoming a reporter, just like her heroine, the movie character Torchy Blane.   She's in the newsroom when the rumour comes down the wire, and watches as the news media are gagged by the Armed Forces, desperate to keep the loss a secret for as long as possible not to damage morale.  Bound to report on the story, Grace must witness first hand the suffering of those left behind. When her fiance is injured in Singapore covering a story, and then captured by the Japanese and held in Changi, she too must endure the pain of waiting for a loved one to return, not knowing if he'll be the same man who left. 

Lisa Bigelow's debut novel brings a human element to a well-known event of Australian World War Two history.  While many of the facts of the tragedy are known, to read about wives and mothers and children who are missing their loved ones and hoping against hope that the ship will miraculously turn up is to really appreciate the impact of the event.  One benefit of a historical novel is the certainty that comes with time.  Writing this piece, Bigelow and her readers know much more about the event than her characters ever will, and it is with great empathy that she evokes this pain and heartache and blind faith in her character, Mae.  While Grace and Mae have several crossovers, they never actually meet within the book, and yet their stories are completely intertwined, bringing home the interconnectedness that always becomes apparent after big events. 

While writing about tragedy, Bigelow's writing is never heavy-handed.  This novel is also rich in hope-- from the support that Mae receives from her family, to the steps she takes moving on to the next phase of her life, or for Grace, the way that her career begins to progress as a woman looking for work in a man's profession when men are scarce.  Far from being a romance, We That Are Left is a novel about two characters who are forced to find the strength to endure the lasting impact that war has on their home lives, and while each woman has her own flaws, there is something very relateable about their journeys.  

This novel is a quick, absorbing read, which will appeal to fans of Deborah Burrows. 

I really enjoyed it and gave it four stars.