The Girl from Widow Hills
In the latest thriller from Megan Miranda, The Girl from Widow Hills, the central character is a young woman who went through a traumatic event as a child and then, in an attempt to escape the continuing media circus years later, changed her name and left her home town in order to reinvent herself and make a completely new life. The author explores the idea of what it means to be the subject of intense media scrutiny and the sort of impact it can have on the subject while also crafting a complex and suspenseful mystery that brilliantly evokes the feelings of unease and dread experienced by the protagonist, keeping the reader as on edge as she is.
When she was just six years old, Arden Maynor disappeared from her home during a bad storm and became the focus of an intense and desperate local search and round-the-clock media attention. Found – miraculously alive – in a storm-drain three days later the story went that she had gone outside while sleepwalking and been swept away by the flood torrents, and to this day, no-one knows how she survived, not even Arden, who has little memory of that time and has no wish to remember it. After her rescue, her mother sold the story, went on talk shows, wrote a book about what happened, and made a lot of money off the back of it all – money which, by the time this book opens, has largely disappeared. When the tenth anniversary of the event came around, Arden was old enough to refuse to have anything do to with the ‘commemorations’, hating the idea that she was seen as a commodity, some sort of public property because everyone involved – whether directly or remotely – felt she owed them something. Not long after that, she left home and changed her name.
Now the twentieth anniversary is approaching, and Olivia Meyer (I’m going to refer to her as Olivia in the current timeline of the book, as that’s how she thinks of herself) – has made the new life she wanted and has fiercely guarded her privacy. She likes her job as an hospital administrator, has a couple of good friends, lives in a fairly isolate location near the woods, and keeps herself to herself, which is just as she wants it. When the book begins, she has recently received news that her mother – from whom she was estranged – died of an overdose seven months earlier, and she receives a small box containing her minimal personal effects. Nothing in it really means much to Olivia, and she puts the box away.
More troubling is the fact that she seems to have started sleepwalking again. Her neighbour, Rick, wakes her up outside her house one night, and she has no recollection as to how she got there. Seriously shaken, Olivia wonders if the unexpected resurgence of something she hasn’t done since childhood could be the result of the looming twentieth anniversary, and tries to take steps to make sure she remains inside in case it happens again. But the next night, she wakens to the sound of a ringing phone – and just as she realises she’s outside again, she trips over something soft and warm… something which turns out to be the body of a man lying across the boundary of her and Rick’s property. Panicked and disoriented, Olivia has no idea what happened. Could she have killed the man while completely unaware of what she was doing?
Olivia has spent much of her life being wary of everything and everyone, carefully excising irrelevancies from her recollections and constructing a personal history built on lies of omission. But when it turns out the dead man was Sean Coleman – the man who rescued Arden all those years ago – Olivia realises that she has no alternative but to tell the detectives investigating the murder the truth about her past – and she once again finds herself at the centre of a major investigation and news story.
The novel starts off fairly slowly, and the main narrative is interspersed with snippets from interviews, news items and commentary from the time of Arden’s disappearance and other key points along the timeline. The whole thing is related from Olivia’s point of view, so the reader only knows what she knows, and as she is quickly revealed to be something of an unreliable narrator – because she has obviously blocked out most of the facts surrounding her ordeal – it’s even harder to get a complete picture of what happened. So this is really a mystery on two fronts; who killed Sean Coleman, and what really happened to Arden before she was found in the storm drain?
But the trouble with an unreliable narrator is that they are hard to know, and I felt that way about Olivia for most of the book, which meant that I often felt removed from the action. Her desire to escape her past is understandable, but her insistence on maintaining a distance from just about everyone – she hasn’t even told her best friend her real name – and her near-paranoia about the possibility of anything about her past coming to light made her seem a bit cold and at times, I got quite frustrated with her refusal to let anyone in. But with that said, Olivia’s growing sense of dread, her feelings of being watched and of being off-kilter are palpable, and I didn’t see most of the plot twists and turns coming – although I did figure out the answer to one of the big questions before the reveal.
Even so, I enjoyed The Girl from Widow Hills, and although it is, as I said, a bit slow to start, things started to pick up after the first quarter or so and as the story gradually gained momentum, I found it to be a compelling read.