Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Book Review: No One Knows

By Jami Deise

A few years ago, Gone Girl kicked off a huge trend that’s been reverberating through fiction ever since it was published. It’s not just using the word “girl” in the title (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is probably responsible for that one), but the use of unreliable narrators that prevent the reader from figuring out the mystery before the book ends. If the protagonist’s very words cannot be trusted, how can the reader possibly get ahead of her?

J.T. Ellison’s new thriller, No One Knows, marries the unreliable narrator trend started by Gone Girl to women’s fiction mysteries in the vein of Liane Moriarty. While the book is a page-turner, the combination of unreliable narrator, multiple points of view, and characters who are difficult to root for results in an ending that isn’t nearly as emotionally satisfying as Moriarty’s works.

Five years ago, Aubrey Hamilton’s husband Josh disappeared. With a huge life insurance policy and a pool of blood found in their house, Aubrey was tried for Josh’s murder – even though no body was found – but acquitted. Now Josh has finally been declared legally dead, and Aubrey is about to come into all that life insurance money. That is, if she can prevent her mother-in-law Daisy, who has hated Aubrey since she was a child, from claiming it herself. And then Aubrey meets Chase, who looks so much like Josh that she can’t help quickly falling for him. But is Chase really who he says he is?

Ellison plays a lot with point-of-view and time, showing readers Aubrey’s tragic foster home past and Daisy’s negative perception of her son’s childhood sweetheart. Early on, it seems like the book will be divided between these two women, in a tug-of-war over past and present, Josh’s love and the money. But Daisy is placed on the back burner rather quickly, and other points of view, including Chase’s in the present and Josh’s in the past, come to the forefront. Nevertheless, these jumps in time and character do not make the story difficult to follow at all.

However, they do make the characters less likable. The more I learned about Josh, the less I cared about what actually happened to him. As for Aubrey, her difficult past was hard to reconcile with the Montessori teacher she was in the present. I wanted her just to forget about Josh all together and get on with her life.

The ending, as is standard in books with unreliable narration, makes the reader question everything that happened earlier. Unlike Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, it feels tacked on. Unreliable narration requires the writer to play hard and tight with techniques such as characters’ thoughts and what isn’t said or done in scene work. Ellison doesn’t do this, so the final reveal comes across cheaply. There’s also a huge coincidence that I thought could have been handled much more naturally without forgoing the plot twist. I didn’t want to read the book again to see what I’d missed; I felt like the three hours I spent reading the book had almost been wasted. I say “almost,” because the book is very fast-paced, and so was I, on the treadmill as I read it.

Despite these shortcomings, I would recommend that fans of the unreliable narrator pick up No One Knows. Does the author go too far in withholding her characters’ true natures? Or is Ellison merely pushing the envelope with already-established conventions? It’s a debate worth having.

Thanks to Gallery for the book in exchange for an honest review.