Book Review: The Collective by Alison Gaylin
By John ValeriNovember 2, 2021
The Collective by Alison Gaylin is a propulsive psychological suspense thriller that melds a driving narrative with breathtaking twists and violent fury to plumb the dark side of justice and the depths of diabolical revenge as a mother seeks retribution for her murdered child.
Alison Gaylin may not always subscribe to the book-a-year tradition, but when she does publish a novel, it’s both an occasion to anticipate and one to remember. A former entertainment journalist and graduate of Northwestern University and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, she transitioned to fiction with 2005’s Hide Your Eyes and its sequel, You Kill Me. Gaylin’s first novel in the highly acclaimed Brenna Spector series, And She Was, later won the Shamus Award, while her 2017 standalone, If I Die Tonight, won the Edgar Award; Hide Your Eyes, What Remains of Me, and Stay With Me were also nominated for that honor. This November, she returns with The Collective.
Camille Gardner has suffered the worst loss imaginable for a parent: her child. Five years ago, 15-year-old Emily was left for dead in a wooded area of the Brayburn College campus and later succumbed to her injuries—but not before telling her mother who was responsible: freshman Harris Blanchard. Immediately following the incident, the Blanchards went on the offensive as Camille and her then-husband, Matt, were consumed by their grief; by the time they resurfaced, it was only to discover that the narrative—namely, that Emily’s encounter with Harris was consensual and somebody else accompanied her into the woods—had been written without their input.
Now, Camille—largely detached from the outside world apart from the man who received her daughter’s heart—has been arrested for drunkenly accosting Harris Blanchard at an awards ceremony and finds herself the subject of public ridicule when a video of the incident goes viral. Therapy didn’t quell her rage, but she does find comfort and camaraderie among a private online group of mothers, Niobe, who’ve all lost children due to others’ actions. Soon, Camille is invited to the dark web where an anonymous assemblage of these moms (“The Collective”) not only share their tragic stories but the violent revenge fantasies that keep them going. When the site’s administrator, 0001, invites Camille to take part in making these fantasies a reality, she doesn’t hesitate—never thinking she may be putting her own life, or the lives of those she loves, in jeopardy.
The story is told through Camille’s perspective and in the present tense, which amplifies both the intimacy and immediacy of the narrative. Gaylin does an outstanding job of inhabiting the character, highlighting her varying degrees of anger, frustration, and sorrow; she also imbues Camille with a conscience (albeit a conflicted one), particularly after the discovery that 0001 may be more duplicitous than her online persona would suggest. Despite her complicity in the planning and execution of certain crimes—and having sworn her loyalty to the group on her daughter’s memory—Camille begins to question where exactly the line between the mothers and the monsters is drawn or if there even is one. The (im)morality of it all is quite murky, and her moment of clarity may come too late.
The Collective is quite possibly Alison Gaylin’s best book yet—and that’s saying a lot. The grieving-moms-as-avengers premise is entirely gripping in and of itself, but it’s the underlying emotion and subsequent action that makes reading it an all-consuming, immersive experience. Like anything worthy of thoughtful consideration and debate, this book may make you deeply uncomfortable at times but will ultimately win you over with its bold, beating heart.