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WATCH IT BURN
by Kristen Bird
Mirabooks, an imprint of Harper Collins, March 2024
336 pages
$18.99
ISBN: 0778369692


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Best friends Jenny and Nichole investigate how local businessman George Hoffman has bought most of the buildings in town, how his shady company Genetive is going to change Americans for the better (his version of better), and how his wife Beverly happened to end up dead in the local river.

Dramatis personae: Jenny, 40, print journalist at the Gazette, a small-town newspaper; Curt, her husband, at least for now, employed by a mysterious company called Genetive; Emmy and Austen, their children; Nichole Ji-Ho Miller, Jenny's best friend; Christina, Nichole's deeply mourned sister, dead under strange circumstances; Wes Stuart, Nichole's somewhat creepy new boyfriend; George Hoffman, elite "owner" of small central Texas town, author, and founder of Genetive, Inc., a movement to create the "right" kinds of people; Beverly Hoffman, his faithful and unloved wife, unfortunately dead, but fortunately, not silent; Max Hoffman, their son; small-town people of both the "right" and the "wrong" kind, according to George.

Kristen Bird's novel is narrated by a series of first-person narrators in chapters titled by each narrator's name. The most interesting of the narrators is already dead; it is she who gives us a lot of backstory as an aside. The rest of the mere mortals in the novel are forced to look for actual clues, since the dead don't talk to them, only to us. As you might imagine, with a dead narrator time is rather fluid. The novel sifts back and forth, from the beginnings of George's terrible and destructive career, to now, as a mysterious arsonist has set part of downtown on fire. We watch it burn from a safe distance away, and only one person dies in the conflagration.

Our main characters, Jenny and Kurt and their unhappy marriage, Nichole, her boyfriend who popped up out of nowhere, and her missing sister, George and his wife and son, each has a backstory that placed him or her in the nexus of the present. First-person narrators, frustrated with their current situations, muse on their past, and we eavesdrop.

At the center of Bird's novel is a philosophical question: can you or I (dear reader) judge the worth of another human being? Should you or I (dear reader) invent yardsticks by which human worth might be measured? Now, before you get too cynical, isn't it true that you and I do exactly these things when we raise children or teach in a schoolroom? Or even when we write a novel.

Into Kristen Bird's mythical small Texas town (that looks a lot like either San Marcos or New Braunfels), Bird drops a George Hoffman, who has exactly the idea that, given enough instruction, people can perfect themselves.

To that end, he has begun buying up the school system, the newspaper, the art gallery, those systems by which we disseminate information. Hoffman has also opened a kind of summer camp, a very, very, very expensive summer camp, for adults. Journalists, such as Jenny, are nosy persons. She wonders if, by going to the summer camp, she might find out how George's wife died, and thus gain a scoop to make herself known. While at the camp, Jenny and friends are surprised to find their every minute is tracked. Phone conversations are listened to. And if a person disagrees with what a lecturer or presenter is saying, that person is asked to leave the room and temporarily disappears.

I may not say what else happens, but I invite you to read.

Cathy Downs, Prof. Emerita at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, keeps a garden, feeds the cats, designs quilts, and enjoys good books of the mysterious sort.

Reviewed by Cathy Downs, February 2024

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