Mama’s Pearl

I’ve never much cared for the term domestic suspense, because, as someone whose mind works primarily in playing around with words, it has always seemed to me that the inverse would be international suspense, which, to me, sounds like downplaying the work of women and its importance, since books primarily given this”domestic suspense” label generally are women. (Although one can make an argument that men cannot, or do not, write domestic suspense because they traditionally are more involved outside the home and family? Interesting premise there…)

I know there has been debate over the years about the differences between crime fiction written by men or by women, and that women’s crime fiction isn’t always taken quite as seriously as that written by men. I’ve tried puzzling this out, and have made my own brain hurt trying to come up with reasons for why this injustice has always been perpetrated on women crime writers; it’s almost as though the ideation is that women’s fiction is somehow more internal and more contained and almost smaller; the themes of their work being about relationships and family rather than big universal save-the-world themes in male-written fiction. That might have a small kernel of truth to it, as a starting point for a much broader discussion that should be held by those with bigger brains and more knowledge of our genre than my limited knowledge and experience; I just know that while I can occasionally enjoy one of those BIG style books about saving the world with lots of action and gunplay and danger, I prefer as a general rule the stories where the crime story comes from the fracturing of relationships and the emotional damage inflicted by personal cruelty and thoughtlessness from those we know intimately.

Alison Gaylin has, in the slightly more than a decade and a half since she published her first book, Hide Your Eyes (which is absolutely delightful), has become one of the best in what I suppose would be classified as “domestic suspense.” Her If I Die Tonight won an Edgar Award; she was nominated three or four times before, and her What Remains of Me remains one of my favorite reads of the last decade. She writes about mothers and their children; how families can disintegrate in the face of criminal tragedy, or how the scars from a long ago tragedy can continue to break open and bleed in the present.

But with her latest, The Collective, she has somehow managed to kick it up into another gear.

The ceremony starts in twenty minutes. I’m climbing out of the subway tunnel, a thousand unwanted smells in my hair. I’m not used to being around this many people–the stink of them, the heat, the noise. The noise especially. I just shared a subway car with a group of high school girls, and their laughter still swirls in my ears. I probably should have driven, but it’s been hard for me to drive long distances since Emily’s death. My thoughts start spinning along with the wheels, memories of road trips, of carpools and radio sing-alongs and petty arguments and before I know it, I am aiming straight for the divider.

The venue is just three blocks away. I walk slowly, slower than everyone around me, trying to catch my breath, to still my thoughts, to think of nothing but the sidewalk and the cold night air and where I need to be.

From half a block away, I recognize the Brayburn Club. I know it from the photo I found online. It’s located in a Gramercy Park brownstone with leaded windows and wide, majestic steps. It’s a week past New Year’s. but the Brayburn Club is still decorated for the holiday season, a lush wreath filling the front door, icicle lights dripping from the window sills like fresh beads of sweat.

I pass a group of young women smoking last-minute cigarettes–friends of his, maybe?–and I think back to the time I caught Emily smoking weed with her friend Fiona. She must have been fourteen, always a little old for her years and bored of our small Hudson Valley town. I got so angry with her. Grounded her for two months. Her dad thought it excessive. We smoked pot when we were that age, Matt said, missing the point. Yes, we smoked pot when we were fourteen, but Emily wasn’t us. She was better than us.

I won’t do it again, Mom. I promise. Her voice in my head is as clear an real as the shrieking laughter of the girls on the train. I want to lose myself in it and never come back.

It isn’t until I’m at the top of the stairs, after I’ve handed the boy at the door my invitation and I’m in line for the coat check that Emily’s voice quiets and I remember where I am and why I’m here.

The book focuses on a web designed in the Hudson valley named Camille whose life–and family–has been disrupted by a horrible tragedy; the death of her daughter Emily. Her overwhelming and all-encompassing grief has ended her marriage (her ex-husband has moved far away and remarried; finding solace in alternative spirituality), and made her friends very uncomfortable to be around her so they slowly have dropped away…leaving Camille alone with her anger, her bitterness, and her memories. Unable to handle her grief, she focuses on the boy responsible for Emily’s death–who has gone on to academic success and great popularity at his college–with the end result that she crashes an award ceremony for him, creates a scene, and winds up in jail. After she gets out, a woman who was also present at the ceremony and was sympathetic to her presses a business card with the word Niobe on it (not a spoiler here–anyone who knows Greek mythology will recognize the name of the proud woman with twelve children who dared to compare herself favorably to Leto, mother of Apollo and Artemis; the twin gods who then slay Niobe’s children in front of her). Camille’s actions have gone viral–someone recorded the scene she created at the ceremony, and not the good kind of viral where everyone is outraged at her suffering and goes after the young man who essentially killed her daughter.

Soon, she is lured into the dark web world of Niobe, a collective of women who are all grieving mothers, their children all killed through the misadventures or deliberate acts of others who then got away with it. The collective all work together to make sure that justice–vengeance–is done; it’s actually very clever how it all comes together (no spoilers here) but Camille is assigned tasks to do. She has no idea why, or what they are for, or how they all act in concert with simple chores or errands done by any number of other women, but all together the end result is vengeance.

Or justice, depending on your point of view.

But the further Camille ventures into this exhilarating, if questionable, world, the more questions arise in her head: is this actually justice? The other women she comes into contact with–who can she ask questions of, who can she trust? And of course, the first rule of the Collective is that you don’t ask questions or talk about the Collective…

Camille is a deeply flawed woman, and yet Gaylin taps into the character so deeply that even as you think to yourself, oh no girl don’t do that this will not end well, the reader can also connect with the unsurmountable grief she feels; the wonderful feeling of doing something, even if it’s not legal or moral–there really is nothing worse than that helpless feeling–and you can’t help but root for her as she gets more and more deeply involved…and the suspense! Gaylin is a master of building suspense to the point you cannot stop reading–and resent even having to stop for a bathroom break.

I do recommend this very highly. It’s exceptional, and a master of the form firing on all cylinders.

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