In Her Wake

Amanda Jennings’ In Her Wake is a multi-layered, multi-twist psychological thriller.  Bella Campbell is a librarian, in her late twenties, and is driving with her husband to her parents’ home the night before her mother’s funeral.  This tragic event comes to reveal devastating news, becoming a turning point where her entire existence as she knows it is suddenly completely unravelled.  With a laser-like focus on character development, this is a very intense crime drama.  

The funeral of Elaine Campbell is a quiet affair, with very few in attendance, and a father whose struggles seem to be beyond the regular expected grief.  And then, after the loss of her mother, after the visceral memories flooding back from being in the old family home, after the discomfort between Bella and her controlling husband becomes clear, after attempts at conversation with her distant, choked-up father: a classic thriller plot-twist.  Her life is not her own; there is a 25 year old mystery to solve.  The byline on the blurb is “A perfect life…until she discovered it wasn’t her own” but I think the reality is a bit more nuanced than that.  Bella’s existence up until this point had very little substance; she had a life, sure, but it wasn’t perfect and this mystery is her first opportunity to take ownership of that life.

We are immediately immersed in Bella’s first-person, claustrophobic narration.  I found it haunting and very gripping, trying to understand motivations before the classic plot-twist had even happened.  And then historical dated chapters from the perspective of her father Henry are interspersed, beginning to build in and add some colour and context around this family’s life.  As this picture emerges, it is striking that it is Elaine who is the centre of the family, its sun, its brightest star and biggest danger, but she never has a voice in the telling this story.  It was so hard to put down this book; the involvement and compulsion was instant and resonant.

It is also a thoughtful, and atmospheric book.  I liked being where it was, and feeling the Cornish coast with it storms and sun and salt air.  Jennings captures the environment in the context of Bella’s experience really well, which in turn contributes to her development.  She emerges as she investigates this family mystery, shaking off the shock of discovery to discover this life which is not hers.

But this pacy psychological thriller tapers off toward the end.  It is almost as if it is too short at 366 pages to maintain the same tightly-focused character development that it opens with.  Later twists and turns feel too quickly and neatly resolved, the characters’ responses to it not very affecting.  We know we are near the end, we can physically see it in the book, so when we get hit with a massive plot twist something like 10 pages out it is hard to respond with any meaning because you know it will all be tied up pretty soon.

But the propulsion of this book is enjoyable, its structure classic thriller, and its detail and care for characters gripping and immersive.  In Her Wake is a smarter thriller, emotionally charged and deeply captivating.

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