‘But what if monsters walk among us and they aren’t nut jobs? Sebastian was a seemingly normal guy who grew angry, so angry, he could have killed me. Anger isn’t a mental illness. Maybe regular people do terrible things all the damn time.’
I was really looking forward to getting lost in this book because it has such a great premise. The blurb sounded like a cross between the twisted relationships of Single White Female and the exotic locations of TV’s Race Across the World. Having read SJI Holliday’s Violet last year I was looking forward to experiencing more dark deeds in remote locations off the usual tourist track. Emily and Kristen have been friends since college, but Kristen left her Milwaukee roots and is currently living in Sydney. Emily wasn’t brought up in Milwaukee, but she’s fallen in love with this city and it’s old houses and community spirit. Now they’re living on opposite sides of the world, they have an agreement that once a year they’ll pick up their backpacks and visit somewhere different, to experience the real way of life away from tourist spots. At the opening of the book the girls have met in Chile, rented a car, and are giving off serious Thelma and Louise vibes. Unfortunately, they have no idea how true to the film their experience is going to be. When Kristen meets a Spanish backpacker in a bar on their last night, she’s keen to spend some alone time with him. However, Emily is very uneasy about the plan. Kristen asks her to stay in the bar for an hour, giving her some alone time in their room with her new beau. Emily agrees, but her unease becomes too much and she leaves early, rushing back to the room. She finds Kristen spattered with blood and the backpacker dead on the floor with wide open eyes, a picture that will linger in her head forever. Kristen tells Emily the backpacker attacked her. Emily wants to support her friend, but isn’t this a huge coincidence? Why would something so dreadful happen to them twice?
Emily’s concerns about Kristen being alone with someone she’s just met, came from very bitter experience. Last year, in Phnom Penh, Emily made the same choice. She met a man called Sebastian and invited him back to her room where he sexually assaulted her. Emily froze up, but suddenly Kristen burst in and started fighting Sebastian off. In the struggle, he was hit on the head, which accidentally killed him. Despite this being self-defence, the girls chose not to go to the police and instead they managed to smuggle his body out of their digs and conceal their crime. Now here they are, only a year later, going through exactly the same experience. When it happened to Emily she went to pieces and Kristen was the best support, staying up all night with her if she had to and slowly putting all Emily’s broken pieces back together again. Kristen seems strangely okay though, organised and dedicated to concealing another crime they’ve committed. How can she keep herself together like that? Emily doesn’t want to judge, she knows people react to trauma in different ways. As they fly off to their respective homes she expects Kristen’s emotions to hit as she reaches the safety of her apartment. It never happens. As Emily settles back into normal life, working at the organic pet food business, taking yoga classes at the studio and continuing her fledgling relationship with Aaron, she does unwind a little. Emily had been unsure about mentioning she was seeing someone to Kristen, so she’d played it down but things are going well. She wonders why she was so reticent and organises some counselling with a woman her friend Priya recommends. She wants to talk about her relationships, but the face of the dead backpacker keeps flashing up in her mind when she least expects it. She imagines rain coming down and uncovering his body. What if the police piece together his last movements and go to the bar, where staff might remember two American backpackers with dark hair? She’s trying to get back to normality and enjoy Aaron, when there’s an unexpected knock at the door. She’s shocked to open it and find Kristen standing there. What is she doing turning up like this? Emily feels very disloyal, but wonders how she’s going to manage her normal everyday life and spend enough time on her new relationship with Kristen here?
We’ve all had those friendships where we’ve felt uneasy or as if we’re in competition – this is the situation that the word frenemy was invented for. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what Kristen is doing, but the undercurrent is there. Emily is very unsure of herself anyway and doesn’t have that stability of a family around her, since her parents split when she was a teenager. This has made her cautious and inward thinking, we do spend a lot of time in Emily’s head and get to know her well. Of course I was very interested in how the author tackled the sessions with her counsellor, Adrienne. She describes her as calm and present, and I loved how she describes imagining Adrienne as so well rooted in her chair she never moves, as clients travel through as if on a conveyor belt. I think this stands out to Emily because she’s never had anyone in her life who feels that permanent. I enjoyed looking for those red flags, where Adrienne puts her pen down and asks Emily to pay attention to what she’s just said. It brings her into the moment, and reminds her to listen to her self- talk; most clients have all the answers within them. Emily mentions that by having Aaron in her life she feels like she’s ‘abandoning’ Kristen, which is strange because she should be able to have a boyfriend and a best friend shouldn’t she? She also wonders whether the distance they had wasn’t a good thing? She’d been getting over Phnom Penh, but with Kristen closer she ‘wondered if the distance between Kristen and me had been a blessing: a long and narrow but viable path toward healing. Now I felt myself sliding the opposite way like someone dragged by the heels.’
Kristen is more difficult to get to know, mainly because we are not inside her head. She is good for Emily in some ways, pushing her to try new things and be more spontaneous. Emily gets a small glimpse into Kristen’s early life when she drives her home to the grandparents who brought her up. Although lovely and polite, Emily notices that all of their questions are focused on her, rather than Kristen. There’s no real fanfare that she’s come all the way from Sydney to see them, in fact they seem quite dismissive. Aaron is a lovely guy, one of the ones who ring when they say they will and make a new date at the end of the last one. Kristen has been a lifesaver before, pointing out when previous boyfriends were not putting the effort in or manipulating her. She’s desperate for Aaron and Kristen to get along, but she also wants to enjoy him without Kristen’s interference. On the first night he goes back to Emily’s apartment with her, Kristen messages that she needs her. Feeling obligated to drop everything, she jumps out of bed and Aaron goes home. When Emily finally gets through to Kristen on the drive over she claims it wasn’t serious and Emily could have just phoned. I was so suspicious at this point and found myself begging for Emily to see what’s happening.
Once the girls have come home from Chile, the tension and pace drop a little to more of a slow burning thriller. Yet as I came towards the end and the revelations started to come, the pace picked up again. I really felt the claustrophobic, trapped feeling that Emily is starting to experience. When she has a panic attack, and it affects her asthma, I did find myself holding my breath. I thought the issues faced by today’s young women, as brought up by both characters, were sadly very true. Emily makes the astute observation that men choose to put themselves in a position of danger – by playing dangerous sports for example – because they want to feel a moment ice cold fear, to make them feel ‘the icy jolt of feeling alive. They crave it because they have no idea how miserable it is to feel that frigid blast a hundred times a day.’ Women should be allowed to roam the world with a backpack without fear, but the truth is they can’t. The author taps beautifully into a rage that women feel, because the remedy for this inequality doesn’t seem to lie in teaching boys not to rape, but in curbing women’s freedom further. The girls also bring up the real-life case of Amanda Knox and the way her sexual experiences were used as a weapon to beat her with in the tabloid press. Both girls know that liking sex can get a woman branded: as promiscuous; as abnormal; even as a murderer. The author paints a scary picture of coercive control and emotional abuse, that can happen in any type of relationship, such as the quiet way Kristen’s grandfather dismisses her. In turn, Kristen manipulates Emily into being a perpetual victim who she can rescue over and over. Woe betide anyone else who steps in to this drama triangle or Emily if she chooses to step out. This novel is a sinister and obsessive look at female friendship and is a fascinating insight into the 21st Century world young women must occupy.
Publisher: Michael Joseph 3rd August 2021
Meet The Author
Andrea Bartz is a Brooklyn-based journalist and the author of the forthcoming WE WERE NEVER HERE. Her second thriller, THE HERD, was named a best book of 2020 by Real Simple, Marie Claire, Good Housekeeping, CrimeReads, and other outlets. Her LA-Times bestselling debut, THE LOST NIGHT, was optioned for TV development by Mila Kunis. It was named a best book of the year by Real Simple, Glamour, Marie Claire, Library Journal, Crime Reads, Popsugar, She Reads, and other publications. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Women’s Health, Martha Stewart Living, Elle, and many other outlets, and she’s held editorial positions at Glamour, Psychology Today, and Self, among other titles.