Art Kavanagh

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Catherine Ryan Howard, The Liar’s Girl review

I really enjoyed Catherine Ryan Howard’s first novel and I was looking forward to this one. In several ways, it lives up to expectations. The characterization is as good as in the previous book. I particularly like Alison’s mother and her successive best friends, Liz and Sal. (Alison is the narrator of much of the story.) Plot-wise, this isn’t as spectacular a performance as Distress Signals. Early on, I had a strong sense that there’s really only one way the plot could be resolved satisfactorily, and it proceeds sure-footedly towards that inevitable conclusion. The author is to be congratulated on her refusal to spice things up with one or more implausibly unexpected twists. I found the journey compelling and the conclusion satisfying.

But there’s a “but”. The problem, as I see it, has to do with the fact that this is a thriller revolving around the crimes of a serial killer. Typically, a fictional serial killer’s victims are young, vulnerable and attractive women, and the genre relies in part for its effect on the reader’s vicarious misogyny. (Or at the very least, it borders on doing so.) Catherine Ryan Howard is attempting a feminist critique of this genre, in the form of an example which retains the thriller element. Her killer’s victims are (very) young, vulnerable and pretty (one character mentions in passing that all were blonde). Their vulnerability is the point, and the killer has an appropriately pathological and twisted motive based on it. (I think it’s worth mentioning in this context that only one of the victims is mutilated and none is sexually assaulted. That doesn’t attenuate the brutality to which they’re subjected and, in my view, brings their vulnerability home even more forcefully to the reader, who has less reason to look away or to hide behind genre tropes.)

I read this book just a few days after Kristen Roupenian’s “The Good Guy”. The novel, too, touches on the idea of the “nice guy” whose calculatedly unthreatening exterior hides a potentially violent hatred of women. While Roupenian’s 15,000-word short[ish] story focuses mercilessly on that character, the novel is more nuanced and more oblique, and all the better for that.

The locations in the novel (with the exception of the fictitious college attended by the victims, as well as by Alison and the killer) were very familiar to me and, like Alison, I had the experience of reacquainting myself with them after a long period away. As an evocation of that place, the book had a strong emotional impact on me. When I started to write this review, I intended to give the novel three stars. I’ve persuaded myself that it deserves four.

Originally posted on Goodreads, 05-Jan-2019.