Friday, October 11, 2019

Book Review: The Stranger Inside

By Jami Deise

As a resident of Pinellas County, Florida, I’m lucky enough to share the area with some of the best crime fiction writers in the country, including Lori Roy, Michael Koryta, Gale Massey, and Lisa Unger. (We also have one of the best book reviewers around, Tampa Bay Times’s Colette Bancroft, who plays a pivotal role in organizing the area’s annual Festival of Reading.) With her recently released 17th novel, The Stranger Inside, Unger does much to cement her reputation as one of the most compelling writers in the genre.

When Rain Winter was twelve years old, she escaped a killer who murdered one of her two best friends and held the other hostage. Years later, her tormentor was killed by a vigilante. Now Rain is a married mother who has put aside her career as a journalist to concentrate full time on raising her daughter, Lily. But when the vigilante strikes again, Rain is drawn to the case – putting her marriage and maybe her own life in danger.

Thematically, The Stranger Inside leans heavily on ideas around trauma – what it does to children in particular, how it can create different psyches that allow the victim to box off what happened and keep it separate. Although part of Rain remains tormented by what she did not do the day her friends were taken – she even began calling herself by a different name – the question of identity is not specific only to victims of trauma. Indeed, Rain is just as torn in two by her roles of mother and journalist, and it is this “stranger inside” that readers (crime fiction readers are mostly female) will find has the most resonance. In a society that tells women that their children must always come first, every mother learns to question any action she takes that does not directly benefit her child.

The narrative itself is split in two, between Rain’s third-person perspective and the first-person perspective of the vigilante. Unger reveals rather early on who this vigilante is, and I don’t want to spoil it by naming the person. But by taking the “who” out of the equation, Unger gets the reader to focus more on the themes than the details. I was struck by how much Rain’s “mother versus reporter” crisis was exacerbated by her husband’s refusal to take responsibility for their daughter. Every time she went to work, he interrupted her with questions about the location of a toy or needing guidance on how to comfort a crying toddler, sending the message that motherhood was her only job and no one else could be trusted to do it. Similarly, the vigilante also feels "only one" responsibility -- spurred into action by the inability of the justice system to convict the murderers.

Unger does an excellent job creating tension and building momentum while working in a plot that is strongly weighted to the past. Still, I was expecting the climax to unfold in a certain way, and was surprised and honestly a little disappointed by the direction Unger decided to take. Then again, maybe I should not have been surprised. Unger is a mother as well as a writer; perhaps the most obvious authorial choice was one a mother just couldn’t bring herself to take.

Thanks to Park Row for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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