In Lisa Unger’s powerful new psychological thriller, character and plot come together quickly to duke it out – like in one of those whirling cartoon fights where you see the occasional fist or leg protruding from a spinning tornado.
The blurb may not be telling you the whole truth:
Lana Granger lives a life of lies. She has told so many lies about where she comes from and who she is that the truth is like a cloudy nightmare she can’t quite recall. About to graduate from college and with her trust fund almost tapped out, she takes a job babysitting a troubled boy named Luke. Expelled from schools all over the country, the manipulative young Luke is accustomed to controlling the people in his life. But, in Lana, he may have met his match. Or has Lana met hers?
When Lana’s closest friend, Beck, mysteriously disappears, Lana resumes her lying ways–to friends, to the police, to herself. The police have a lot of questions for Lana when the story about her whereabouts the night Beck disappeared doesn’t jibe with eyewitness accounts. Lana will do anything to hide the truth, but it might not be enough to keep her ominous secrets buried: someone else knows about Lana’s lies. And he’s dying to tell.
There are shades of Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places in In The Blood, a tricky and clever tale of a damaged teen’s efforts to escape her past. Lana’s friendship with her friend Beck is troubled by unresolved sexual tension. Trouble is, when Beck follows Lana into the woods, she vanishes. And at the same time as Beck disappears, Lana falls into the orbit of an 11-year-old, a bad seed called Luke, who has a penchant for mind games.
Sometimes crime-novels can take ages to get going, particularly in psychological novels where we spend a lot of time in a character’s head. We can get so bogged down in a character’s endless thoughts and feeling that we gasp for a line of dialogue like water in a desert. But there’s little faffing about in In The Blood.
We all know the phrase character is action. Well, in this novel, the depth of Lana’s damaged-psyche emerges as she tries to discover the truth about Beck’s disappearance, Luke’s intentions and the truth of her mother’s murder. Unger always keeps Lana moving forward, juggling a number of interconnected mysteries, and throwing in a satisfying twist. It’s an impressive feat of plate-spinning.
As a protagonist, Lana may not be everyone’s cup of tea. She’s a right mess of a young lady. On medication, in therapy, blacking out, repressing sinister memories. Her issues go way back to her mother’s murder and beyond. Her life has been built on secrets and lies. Good for the reader, bad for Lana.
But we root for her to solve the mess of her life. One way that Unger makes us do that is by surrounding herself with a collection of even more damaged individuals. Luke, for example, is a nasty little article, a sociopath who runs rings around his passive mother. Luke gives Unger the opportunity to consider the age old conflict of nature versus nurture. Are psychopaths born or made?
If, towards the end, In The Blood sometimes veers dangerously towards melodrama – Unger’s fictional New York town The Hollows seems over-burdened by deranged persons – that’s okay. I prefer the books I read to over-commit rather than crawl half-heartedly to a close.
What I liked: Unger is a terrific plotter. So many novels fail because they don’t surprise. Inexperienced authors can put every damned fact on the page. An experienced author like Unger knows how to stay one step-ahead of the reader by withholding vital information, or making them come to the wrong conclusion.
Reading a novel is the one time people want to be proved wrong. They love being blindsided. One way to do that is to use, as Unger does, an unreliable narrator. Someone who, for whatever reason, isn’t going to give the reader the whole picture. It’s a powerful device in the skilful writer’s toolbox.