Short Take: Transcends its flaws.
Hello, all both of you who are reading this! Sorry for my absence lately. I’ve been on a true crime reading binge, and for some reason, I find it nearly impossible to review non-fiction books. To me it’s like trying to review a newspaper article (hands up, who fondly remembers newspaper articles?) in that so long as the writing is minimally competent, it’s way more important to get the facts down. You can’t really critique the storytelling when the story is something that’s already really happened, you know?
Throw in me being the obsessive information junkie that I am, I frequently google the cases I read about, just to see how accurate the book I read really was, and finding lots of dissenting opinions from various people involved in whatever the case was, and it becomes harder to even evaluate whether the author got the real facts right.
I think that after reading a bunch of accounts of real-life investigations, my reading of fictional crimes and how the characters go about solving them may be a bit skewed.
Girl in the Dark is actually a really good book, but the main character’s ineptitude was killing me. Maybe they just do things differently in the Netherlands? I should back it up and explain, huh?
Iris has a plate that is so full, the slightest shift could send everything tumbling. She is a single mom of a very difficult son, Aaron. He’s only three years old, but his tantrums and violent outbursts towards other children are nearly impossible to deal with. She’s an attorney, a career that isn’t exactly known for lots of free time to deal with personal issues. And her mother, the only person who can help out with Aaron at all, is cold, distant, and highly critical of her.
So everything in her life is in a very precarious balance when she finds out something that throws it all out of whack: she has an older brother, Ray, who she has never met. Ray is autistic, and resides in a mental institution for the criminally insane after being found guilty of the brutal murder of his neighbor, Rosita, and Rosita’s young daughter several years ago.
Iris begins a two-part investigation, first, to prove Ray’s innocence, and second, to understand how her mother could have had him institutionalized at nine years old and kept him a secret for decades afterward.
The book is told in alternating chapters, from the perspectives of Iris and Ray. With Ray, we get a heartbreaking look at just how much difficulty he has understanding the world around him, and how painful it is when others take advantage of that. We also frequently hear about his genitals. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Iris’s chapters are where the book almost lost me. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of great writing here. Both Iris and Ray are fantastic characters, very realistically drawn and relatable. But too much of our time with Iris is spent with her trying to figure out who Ray is, and how he might be related to her. I found myself yelling at my nook “SERIOUSLY?!?!?! FOR THE LOVE—JUST GOOGLE IT ALREADY!”
As I mentioned before, Girl in the Dark takes place in the Netherlands. It took a bit for me to get a handle on the time frame, but it appears that the murders occurred in 2003, and Iris’s involvement came eight years later, which would make it 2011-ish. There are some obvious differences in the way the Netherlands and the USA investigate and punish crimes.. But I found it flat-out impossible to believe that in the Netherlands, in 2011, there was no internet access. Or that in a country with a relatively low crime rate, there wouldn’t be some media coverage that would include at least a brief biography of the murderer. It’s also hard to believe that Ray’s autism would’ve gone undiagnosed for as long as it did in the 21st century, or that the possible causes of Aaron’s behavior wouldn’t dawn on anyone.
I understand that if these things were immediately solved, we would’ve lost a significant chunk of the book, as well as a lot of insight into the main characters. But the end result is that we got a really great story that, at times, felt like a lot of unnecessary filler. And all of this frustration could’ve been completely avoided had Ms. Pauw just set the time period slightly earlier – say, in the early to mid nineties. Doing so would not have affected one scrap of the story, but would have vastly improved the reading experience.
But the thing is, despite the nook-yelling and google-grumbling, I really couldn’t put this one down. Iris and Ray are some of the best characters I’ve seen in awhile, and when the truth comes out…. Well, I completely, honestly 100% did not see it coming, but the pieces fit flawlessly. It’s one of the very few perfect shocker-twist endings I’ve ever seen. So definitely give it a read, but pretend it’s happening twenty years earlier.
The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a croissant. Because now I am craving one like nobody’s business.)