Reviewed by Wendy Hawkin
Two best friends with differing social backgrounds. A senior year trip to Italy. A charming Italian tour guide. And a fatal accident. Or was it an accident?
One minute, Jill Charron is anticipating the trip of her dreams, and the next, she awakens in a hospital bed in her hometown. Except six weeks have passed and she has no memory of her romantic Italian adventure. No memory at all. Her lifelong best friend, Simone, is dead—killed when the car Jill was driving careened off a walled road in Tuscany. And then the bomb drops. The Italian police want to extradite Jill Charron and charge her with murder.
Just as an aside, in Greek mythology Charon is the ferryman of Hades who takes the souls of the deceased across the River Styx into the land of the dead. Charon exacted a coin for passage and those who did not pay the fee might be left wandering for a century. Is Jill this Charon? Did she ferry Simone into the land of the dead or leave her wandering on the shore?
The mind is a complex creature. It can protect us by hiding what we can’t accept or bear to know. It can distort things. What really happened on that mountain road in Tuscany? “The truth,” Eileen Cook warns us on the front cover, “is how you tell it.” This need to know “the truth” is what propels the story and keeps the reader turning pages.
Cook leads us through a maze of viewpoints in an attempt to unravel this truth. What I find most interesting about this book is how she accomplishes that. Obviously, Jill lends her first-person perspective to the story—but it is limited by amnesia. She is an unreliable narrator. All Jill can really cling to is the notion that she would never kill her best friend, not “with malice.” It’s just not possible. Others think differently.
The Italian police believe Jill is guilty. She had motive, means, and opportunity. There was nothing wrong with the car, no bad brakes, no steering problem. Jill’s father, a rich businessman, hired a private plane to whisk her away from the hospital in Italy and bring her back to American soil where he could protect her. And, in their mind, this is an admission of guilt. Then, he also hired a hotshot lawyer to defend her and create a public profile. The public are easily swayed and there’s been a media frenzy for weeks.
This psychological mystery is as twisted as the Tuscan streets. We read police interviews with various friends and Simone’s grieving parents, the eulogy for Simone, a forensic psychology report that assesses the girls’ friendship, texts, emails, Facebook posts, media reports, and the extremely damaging Justice for Simone blog. The clever interspersing of these various bursts paints a picture of the relationship between Jill and Simone and fills in some of what occurred during the six weeks leading up to Jill’s awakening. Everyone reveals something—an opinion, a stray fact, an eye-witness report. And we are left wondering if it is possible that Jill IS guilty.
The novel's unsettling ending bookends the troubling beginning and we are left wringing our hands over this tragedy and wondering what is the truth?
Eileen Cook teaches writing at Simon Fraser University Writer’s Studio Program and works as an editor. Her prose is flawless. In her last life, she counselled people with “catastrophic injuries and illness” something that gives her credibility and insight into Jill’s injuries and recovery process.
With Malice is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
WL Hawkin writes urban fantasy with a twist of murder. To Charm a Killer and To Sleep with Stones are the first two books in her Hollystone Mysteries series with Blue Haven Press. Watch for the launch of To Render a Raven this Halloween.