Review: Emma in the Night

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Wendy Walker. St. Martin’s Press, $27, 320p. ISBN 9781250141439

Into the night suddenly disappear two teenage sisters, Emma and Cass, leaving an empty car on the beach and a single pair of shoes in the surf. Three years later, Cass alone returns to her parents’ home with a story of captivity on an unidentified seven-acre island, and a driving urgency to find her sister who has since given birth. In Emma in the Night, author Wendy Walker carefully weaves a psychological thriller that is even more carefully unwound in a way that reveals only bare hints of resolution until all is immediately exposed.

As the narration switches between Cass’s first-person recounting and a third-person limited overlook of FBI Forensic Psychologist, Dr. Abby Winter, details of Cass and Emma’s home lives before their disappearance come into light. Their mother is revealed to be a pathological narcissist who has spent years competing with her daughters for attention, power, and validation, as her girls have grown in beauty. As the oldest daughter who has realized the threat that she is to her mother, Emma has the stronger love-hate relationship with their mother, and Cass takes refuge in Emma’s shadow as a “bird on the battlefield” with an unrealized, yet growing desire to see her mother defeated.

Cass’s experience growing up with a narcissistic mother is reflected in Dr. Winter’s character, whose mother was also a narcissist. Having investigated Emma and Cass’s disappearances since the beginning, Dr. Winter brings a contrasted, systematic aspect to the novel’s premise of psychosis, while remaining approachable to the reader by her own emotional investment in the case. As Dr. Winter learns of Cass’s childhood, she remembers her own, and is ultimately able to discover Emma’s whereabouts by understanding the dynamic in Cass’s household.

Throughout the novel, Cass is repeatedly put into situations requiring either swift decisions or well-thought-out planning, nothing in-between; Cass is forced to quickly become an adult, and learns that survival in her environment requires rigid observation, manipulation, and sacrifice. Wendy Walker presents the argument that people will believe what they want to believe, and paired with Walker’s working knowledge of the causes and effects of narcissism, Emma in the Night allows its audience to keep guessing at what the truth behind the girls’ disappearance and captivity might be.

Review: Before The Fall

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Noah Hawley. Grand Central Publishing, $26, 400p. ISBN 9781478987581
Into a world that has grown focused on the appearance of self and the embellishment of truth, Noah Hawley installs a cast of characters representative of both connivance and compassion. Our society today knows to accept news reports at arm’s length, unless the sources are verified and the facts are proven to be correct. Hawley’s latest thriller, Before the Fall, epitomizes this conflict between reported fact and fiction, drawing the reader in closer and closer until the truth is finally revealed in quite literally the very last pages of the novel.

Thirty miles off of the coast of New York, a private plane falls out of the sky taking the lives of nine very wealthy passengers with it. The only survivors are a struggling painter, and the four-year-old son of a news magnate.

Scott Burroughs, middle-aged and not quite the successful artist, manages to find the boy floating amidst the waves and wreckage. Having somewhat of a history in swimming, Scott is able to get himself and the boy safely, heroically, to the shore. Scott is soon thereafter greeted not with a hero’s welcome, but instead with accusations of conspiracy to assassinate the boy’s parents and the others that were on the plane.

Investigators are taught to ask the hard questions, and unfortunately,  this sometimes sheds a darker light onto mysteries surrounded by unfortunate circumstances. Why was Scott on a plane with ten other people worth millions of dollars? What was Scott’s true relationship with the boy’s mother, who seemingly “invited” Scott to make the flight with them? And how is it that Scott is the only survivor, save the little boy whose well-being Scott seems to be unusually concerned with? Instead of recognizing Scott for the selfless feat that he accomplished in swimming thirty miles to shore with a young boy on his back, the media tears apart supposed innocent coincidences in an effort to prove Scott guilty: all in the name of having someone on whom to pin the murder of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Hawley proves to be a master of weaving together pieces of a puzzle that he’s already solved, in a way that teases the reader so that putting down the book before the reader is satisfied is simply out of the question. By the end of the book, every single detail presented by Hawley falls into place and complements the whole in a way that leaves nothing unresolved. Before the Fall is an investigation that the reader is invited to participate in, carefully waging the forces of truth and fiction against each other in a skillful battle for liberation.