Recent Reads: Elizabeth is Missing, The Girl on the Train, State of Wonder, The Secret Place & The Burning Room

Elizabeth is Missing
Elizabeth is Missing - Emma Healey
Elizabeth is Missing is deliberately intended to be jumbled. A mess. And its narrative structure lacks a sense of direction and purpose for a reason - the story unfolds through the eyes of an eighty-two year old Englishwoman Maud Horsham who's suffering from dementia and fast losing her touch with reality. All she knows from the notes that she has jotted down is her best friend Elizabeth Markham is missing (hence the title), which causes her to confuse her present with the past disappearance of her sister Susan "Sukey" Gerard in a post World War II Britain.

The central story can be labelled as a mystery, but in fact it's so much more, offering genuine moments of unexpected wry humour and heartfelt poignancy. At one point when the cops turn up, Maud says: "They've been labelled, like my KETTLE plug and my TEA jar. Their label is POLICE." The twin mysteries are dexterously handled for the most part and the mental deterioration of Maud, from someone who can go shopping despite her predicament to someone who fails to recognise her own daughter Helen, who finds herself in the difficult position of trying to make sense out of her mother's incoherent ramblings, ring true and is splendidly done. An out and out unusual mystery.

The Girl on the
Train
The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins
Rachel is the girl on the train. She is a wreck. A little overweight, an intemperate alcoholic, divorced from whom she thought was the man of her life and recently fired from her job, she isn't exactly the usual "heroine" type material. But nevertheless makes for an incredibly unreliable narrator, which is crucial to stories such as this. Staying with her old long-suffering friend, she pretends to leave for work, right on the dot, catching the same train every morning.

She also knows the train stops at the same signal each time, at the same place overlooking a row of houses. She even creates a story in her own mind about a married couple who live in one of those homes. Jess and James, she calls them, and their lives are perfect, a sad reminder of what her life isn't. But then nothing can be perfect forever, even in your wildest fantasies. Megan, or Jess as she calls her, suddenly disappears, and for the first time Rachel knows something that no one else has seen. Because she was the girl on the train.

Paula Hawkins's debut is so gripping and deceptive you can't help but sit and finish it in one sitting. Which is precisely what I did. Narrated from three different perspectives from that of Rachel, Megan and Anna, Rachel's ex-husband Tom's present wife, the fast-paced page-turner is deliciously wicked, and the compelling central mystery takes the domestic thriller to an altogether new level. Megan, haunted by her own past, isn't leading the picture-perfect life like Rachel had imagined, and Anna, for her part, is sick and tired of Rachel intruding on their lives, desperately trying in vain to steer her family away from her. For those looking for the next Gone Girl or Before I Go to Sleep, look no further.

State of Wonder
State of Wonder - Ann Patchett
Ann Patchett's State of Wonder is part travelogue, part journey of self-discovery set in the heart of the Amazon rainforests. Working for a pharmaceutical giant Vogel, Dr. Marina Singh is forced by the company's CEO (20 years her senior, and also her lover) to go to Brazil and track down Dr. Annick Swenson, who happens to be researching in the forests on a wonder drug, after the last person who was sent to locate her, a Dr. Anders Eckman, dies under mysterious circumstances. With Swenson's current whereabouts unknown, Marina embarks on a perilous ride to the Brazilian tropics in hopes of finding her and seek answers to her colleague's unexplained death.

The writing is well done; you can almost see the city of Manaus and its breathtaking greenery come alive in Patchett's evocative descriptions, but where it terribly misses out is in terms of a proper story. The characters are mostly flat and unexciting (not that I cared for them), and to say that the ending (spoiler: where the main character sleeps with the man she just rescued!) completely ruined the book would be an epic understatement. A bizarre story, one that will leave you in a state of wonder!

The Secret Place
The Secret Place - Tana French
I have been a big time fan of Tana French ever since I read her In the Woods and her latest novel The Secret Place, while not as stunning as Broken Harbour, is sufficiently mind-bending and a first-rate psychological thriller. Building upon the events in Faithful Place, The Secret Place opens with sixteen year old Holly Mackey arriving at Detective Stephen Moran's office with a photograph of a boy Christopher Harper, who was found murdered the previous year at her boarding school campus, alongside a caption that reads I know who killed him. Ever more curiously, she had found the photo in the Secret Place, the school's noticeboard where the girls can pour their hearts out anonymously.

Tana French masterfully structures the plot, unravelling the mystery in bits and pieces and opting for a non-linear narrative back-and-forth that's at once compelling and deceptive. While some of the teenage speak and bits of supernatural elements (I'm guessing they were illusions or whatever!) did become minor irritants, French deftly explores themes of gender dynamics, friendship, betrayal and teen-craziness (something akin to Gillian Flynn's Sharp Objects) in this perfect crime novel. The plot also vaguely reminded me of Donna Tartt's The Secret History, no?

The Burning Room
The Burning Room - Michael Connelly
Harry Bosch is back once again, but I wish Michael Connelly would just retire him from LAPD already! Bosch as the Lone Coyote on the verge of retirement continues to remain a powerful character even if he's sleepwalking through his usual cop routine. This time he is joined by Lucy Soto, who makes her first appearance in the series as his new sidekick. She is still an underdeveloped character as yet and it remains to be seen if we will get to see more of her.

The mystery on the whole is hardly worth your attention though, and the major twist towards the end seems more of an afterthought, like adding a twist for the sake of it. Harry is working in cold cases, investigating the case of a mariachi who was shot ten years ago, and this leads to an ever older case involving a series of bank robberies and an orphanage fire, a subplot that's totally extraneous and irrelevant in the larger scheme of things, and yet described in excruciating detail by Connelly. Slow and lacking in thrills, The Burning Room is largely uneventful and dull.

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