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by Julia Dahl
Minotaur, September 2021
288 pages
ISBN: 1250083722

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Julia Dahl, whose previous mysteries took a reporter into New York's ultra-orthodox Jewish community, has written something completely different: a fast-paced tale of rape and its aftermath, told in short chapters that alternate points of view. The opening chapter pulls no punches. As Claudia Castro wakes up in her NYU dorm room, she gradually realizes what she's feeling is more than a typical hangover. Her face is covered in cuts and bruises, her underwear is missing along with her cell phone, and she's in pain and embarrassed. Her first thought is to hide until she can figure out what happened and appear in public without everyone knowing.

Trevor, a fellow student who, like Claudia, is staying in the dorms during spring break, gently tries to help, bringing her coffee and ramen, watching TV and studying with her, and letting her keep her secrets. After all, she's incredibly attractive and wealthy, and normally would be out of his reach. Meanwhile Claudia's older sister, who had planned to have her present to help when she gives birth, can't raise her on her cell phone when she goes into labor. As the family wonders what reckless trouble Claudia got into this time, a video of the assault surfaces and begins to go viral. Claudia does everything she can to disappear, with Trevor's help. But she doesn't want to let her attackers get away with it, and plans a way to hit back, though things go badly wrong.

On the surface, this is a thriller with youthful points of view aimed at a new adult audience. (The brutal subject matter shifts it just beyond the boundaries of young adult, though the narrative style fits that category.) But it's also an insightful if fleeting look at gendered violence, the role of social media in amplifying misogyny, and the corrupting influence of wealth and privilege. Claudia doesn't interrogate the role ready cash plays in her vanishing act. She doesn't recognize what helping her is costing Trevor, who isn't wealthy and risks his future. Trevor, too, is a complex character who is deeply sympathetic but is oblivious to his perception that having Claudia as a girlfriend could be an awesome sexual status booster. The adults in the lives of both the assaulted and the assaulters are drawn in sure, devastating full color.

Some readers may recoil at the subject matter. Others may find the way Claudia's initial attempts to reclaim her agency too close to the problematic rape-and-revenge trope that indulges in vigilante violence under a thin veneer of feminist rage. But Dahl doesn't make things simple. Claudia is not a very nice person. The criminals have their all-too-common excuses. The conclusion withholds a sense of justice served.

There's a lot to think about, but the pacing is so fast it's likely most of that thought will happen after the story ends.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, September 2021

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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