SECOND OPINION: Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka

Review published on October 10, 2018.

This novel begins with the discovery of the body of high school student Lucinda, a popular teenager in a small Colorado town. After being hit on the head with a blunt object, she then hit her head again as she fell on the carousel in the playground of the elementary school and died as a result of her injuries. The story covers a period of several days and is told, in short chapters, from the perspectives of three characters – Russ, the policeman who found the body, Cameron a disturbed, but artistically gifted, teenager who worshipped Lucinda from afar and was known to have spent hours watching (some would say stalking) her, and classmate Jade, who hated Lucinda for “stealing” her boyfriend. In the background are several other characters who feature in the investigation, a teacher with a reputation for getting too friendly with female students, a couple who used Lucinda and Jade as babysitters, the school caretaker, Russ’s brother-in-law and various other family members and friends of Russ, Cameron and Jade. One of these characters is guilty of Lucinda’s death but the investigation is far from straightforward and, although the finger of suspicion is initially focused on Cameron, it soon emerges that other people could have a motive for killing her.

Having read the synopsis I had been expecting a traditional, fast-paced psychological thriller but that is not how this intriguing story unfolds. Instead the narrative from each of the main characters is developed through three internal streams of consciousness as each of them reflects on events in the present, as well as those which have led up to the present tragedy.

Each of the characters is struggling with inner demons and each has something to hide, but the author’s acutely observed and beautifully portrayed examination of their behaviour, and their relationships, engaged me from the start. Not only did she perfectly capture the angst and pathos of struggling adolescents, Cameron and Jade, but she was equally adept at conveying the struggles facing Russ, who was dealing with his ex-con brother-in-law and the loss of his friend and ex- work partner, Cameron’s father, who disappeared years earlier, following a trial for his assault on a young woman. The psychological profiles of all three characters were convincingly credible and, although there were moments when I thought that the inner soul-searching ran the risk of being a bit unrelenting and repetitive, on balance I think she managed her approach to the story-telling in an integrated and authentic way. The actual murder investigation mostly feels peripheral to the gradual exposure of the inner lives of the main characters and the effects Lucinda’s death has on each of them.

Both Cameron and Jade are regarded as social misfits, even as “freaks” by some of their peers, and the author sensitively and powerfully portrays their very different ways of dealing with this. Cameron’s rather introverted personality is reinforced by his increasing struggle with mental health problems and his social isolation. Rebellious Jade, with her pierced lip, her chipped black nail polish, her attention-seeking t-shirts and her claims not to “give a monkey’s…” what anyone thinks of her, uses an alternative dialogue, in the form of a screenplay, to convey what she wishes she had said but didn’t because she feared being seen as a “dick”. With her insightful prose the author conveys what it feels like to be “different” as you struggle with trying to understand yourself and, at the same time, try to make sense of the world you inhabit.

In addition to exploring the effects of the murder on individuals, the story captures the effects it has on a small-town community and demonstrates the darkness which can be exposed when tragedy strikes, and dysfunctional relationships are put under pressure. Exposure, in one form or another is a thread which runs through the story, creating a tension which grows as suspicion falls on first one person and then another, making it impossible to know who can be trusted.

Much as I admired and appreciated the author’s beautiful, at times poetic writing, her portrayals of her characters and her descriptions of scenery, I have to admit that there were moments when I wished for just a little humour to leaven what sometimes felt like endless angst and misery! Nevertheless, this is a book I highly recommend, and I think it would be a very good choice for reading groups.

Linda Hepworth 4/4

Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka
Picador 9781509829965 pbk Sep 2018

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