Asked to teach a podcasting class, Bodie Kane returns to the New Hampshire boarding school where she spent four formative but wretched years, and where in 1995 her former roommate, 17-year-old Thalia, was murdered.
The novel starts in 2018 when Bodie is 40 and ends in 2022 – four quick years in midlife, but for a teenager four years is an entire world. Rebecca Makkai appreciates the allure of reopening the sealed vault of teenagehood. Bodie, with her Docs and eyeliner, is like a ’90s Harriet the Spy – watching and investigating the students, teachers, parents, even before Thalia’s murder – her childhood a world apart from her privileged private school peers. Bodie remembers details, but with the space of time, facts shapeshift, transform.
The year 1995 is so long ago now, who can be sure it happened? It’s not just iPhones and ubiquitous designer water bottles – the big change is that today if you call out a man for squeezing a teenage bum, you’re less likely to be the lone voice. Recollections now paint those men and boys in a different light – perhaps the girls too. In Makkai’s latest novel there is the constant stream of news snippets that live in our bones: “The one where he’d been watching her jog every day… the one with the uncle? Wait, the other one with the uncle?”
The conditioning that meant Bodie brushed aside the constant, casual transgressions didn’t mean she forgot they happened. Armed with the hyper senses that arrive in your forties, she recalls shadow memories that, from a different angle, suddenly have a fresh meaning. Some sleuthing fleshes out more details: times people were or weren’t where they said they were, measurements of how long it takes to ride a bike from A to B, photos, colour-coded diaries. At a time when everyone’s AirPods burned with Serial, Bodie co-hosts a podcast that reconsiders the lives of women in film, and reconsidering things is her specialty.
The school’s athletic trainer, Omar, has been in prison for Thalia’s murder, but Bodie, unconvinced, wonders if it had been a case of blame the nearest Black guy. She casts around: the music teacher, the boyfriend. So many of the men are likely culprits, one way or another – maybe not for this crime exactly, but others. Two students make Thalia’s murder their podcast’s focus, and, in no time, Bodie is in up to her neck. And somehow, the book manages to serve as a rebuke of true-crime podcasts’ exploitative nature.
Makkai understands the appeal of the freezing cold New Hampshire campus novel. I Have Some Questions for You (Fleet) is The Secret History with a shared terrible event rather than a horrible secret. It’s Fleishman Is in Trouble without the dating apps and stupid Toby’s stupid perspective. In fact, Libby and Bodie share much in their narrator’s DNA.
And yes, friends die. Lockdown happens. Bodie isn’t just a cipher. There’s a sometimes boyfriend who doesn’t call back often enough. Her kids are at home in LA with their father, Bodie’s ex, a visual artist who will be dragged through the social media sludge in his own #MeToo moment, and again, Bodie has to be the arbiter: who is exploiting whom?
It’s easy to get nostalgic and forget that things were generally worse in the past, and this novel plays nicely on the frayed line, where photo negatives developed on newer equipment might show fresh filth, blood or mud.
This is Makkai’s fourth novel. Its predecessor, The Great Believers, set during the AIDS crisis in 1980s Chicago, was a Pulitzer finalist. It was blazing, heartbreaking and hopeful. Makkai’s plots are magnificently layered. She throws readers into a world with a handful of characters who exist within a much bigger realm, voluminous and messy and completely formed. She knows we can handle multiple complicated subplots and that a character might have contradictory opinions and act against type. Not everything is foregrounded, backgrounded, explained. Makkai begins with the breathlessness of someone who cannot not tell the story, and she sure knows how to nail an ending.
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