Book Review: Quiet in Her Bones by Nalini Singh
By Janet WebbFebruary 26, 2021
Some titles and opening words have the power to propel us instantly into an unsolved mystery, as with Nalini Singh’s Quiet in Her Bones:
My mother vanished ten years ago.
So did a quarter of a million dollars in cash.
Thief. Bitch. Criminal.
Now, she’s back.
Her bones clothed in scarlet silk.
Five sentences. A child’s mother has been gone for ten years. Before she left, she took $250,000 in cash out of her estranged husband’s safe. Now her bones have been discovered in New Zealand’s Waitākere Ranges Regional Park. As with Singh’s A Madness of Sunshine, there is a perilously thin membrane between civilization and New Zealand’s primeval forest. Aarav was sixteen when his mother disappeared. One of his last memories illustrates the proximity of the woods to their home. He recalls “her dress silhouetted against the native bush that rose dark green and ancient beyond the flimsy barrier of our fence. As if the forest was watching. Waiting.”
Aarav is the author of a fabulously successful first novel, a thriller called Blood Sacrifice. After a serious car accident, he is convalescing at his childhood home, an “unhappy place thick with ugly memories.” Unreasonably early, a plainclothes policeman, accompanied by a uniformed cop, “come to the door of my father’s subtly upscale residence of glass and polished wood.” They are there to inform Mr. Ishaan Rai that “the body of a deceased female was discovered” that morning.
“Her identity has yet to be officially verified, and normally, we wouldn’t inform you at the stage—but, given the likely publicity and attendant conjecture, the decision was made to alert you. She had her driver’s license and credit cards with her. All in the name of Nina Rai.”
Time stopped, filled with the sound of a sharp, pained scream.
Even my father seemed stunned into silence, but that never lasted long with him.
Aarav has never forgotten that scream. What happened to her? He must have been suspicious because he spirited away his mother’s hairbrush. Did he know unconsciously that someday the police would need DNA evidence? Aarav is recovering from a brutal car crash, one so medically perilous that he was in a coma for some time. His doctor says, “we’re seeing signs of minor ongoing cognitive deficiency—but before you panic, it’s early days yet. Your brain’s still repairing itself.” Ordinarily, no problem, but Aarav is concerned that his cognitive deficiencies “can affect memories,” and he desperately wants to accurately reconstruct the night his mother disappeared. It’s a clever juxtaposition, Aarav is concurrently attempting to capture what happened the night he crashed his Porsche and his memories of his mother’s disappearance. He had always held out hope against hope that she was alive but now that he knows differently, he is determined to find his mother’s killer. His father blusters that she drove off drunk into the rainy night, but the body of the dead woman was strapped into the passenger seat. If she wasn’t the driver, who was? Who left her there to die alone?
Aarav grew up in the Cul-de-Sac, an exclusive enclave inhabited by rich families who hold their secrets dear. The neighborhood butts up to the looming forest, Aarav’s childhood playground. Is there a touch Murder on the Orient Express to the Cul-de-Sac? So many residents of the neighborhood had an ax to grind with Aarav’s luminous, unforgettable mother. Even ten years later, people who knew Nina speak of her like she was still alive. Memories of his mother, happy and sad, haunt Aarav.
Once, she’d thrown together a pizza from scratch—adding fresh green chilis and crushed garlic because “otherwise it will have no flavor”—and chucked it in the oven. While it cooked, filling the kitchen with scents that made my stomach rumble, we’d played a card game she’d learned as a child.
I’d pretended to be bored, but I’d been . . . happy.
Plain old happy.
“I love you, Ari.” She’d always kissed me on the cheek before I headed off to bed. “Tu hai meri zindaggi. Always remember that.”
What wouldn’t Aarav give to have his mother speaking Hindi to him again? He won’t be happy—or rather content—until he can unlock the mystery of his mother’s death and hand the villain over to the police, wrapped up in a tidy package of motive and proof.
Quiet in Her Bones is part Bildungsroman, part thriller, all wholly absorbing as Aarav relives the months and days before his mother’s death, while contending with a debilitating brain injury (which may or may not be abetted by persons who want him to stop investigating). Nalini Singh owns this subset of the thriller genre: a pairing of an unsolved crime and a forbidding landscape.
There was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run
When the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun
Long before the white man and long before the wheel
When the green dark forest was too silent to be real
When the green dark forest was too silent to be real
And many are the dead men
Too silent to be real
The concluding lyrics of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” encapsulate the visceral power of New Zealand’s forbidding, mighty Waitākere Ranges forest, a character to be reckoned with in Nalini Singh’s latest tour-de-force.