Fresh Meat: Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight

Reconstructing AmeliaReconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight is a literary mystery wherein a mother struggles to understand the reason for her daughter’s death, and the complications of her life (available April 2, 2013).

When Kate Barron is summoned to her daughter’s school by Grace Hall’s unlikable dean of academics, her first emotion is annoyance. She is annoyed with her daughter Amelia. She is annoyed with Dean Pearl, who won’t tell her why Amelia is being suspended for three days, starting immediately. And Kate is really annoyed with one of her colleagues, who is much too eager to take over the client meeting she’s being forced to leave. When Kate arrives at the school twenty minutes later and sees the knot of firefighters and police mingling with the students and faculty in a courtyard, her annoyance intensifies. No one seems to know what’s going on. No one seems to know where Amelia is. No one seems to care that she needs to get back to her office. And then she sees the empty boot and her annoyance turns to something colder.

The single flat-heeled boot lying on its side behind a protective circle of cops looks tantalizingly familiar but it’s black and Kate can’t remember if her daughter’s boots are black or brown. She should know what her daughter’s shoes look like, she tells herself, but so many girls wear the same kind of boots with their skinny jeans or their tight leggings that she convinces herself the boot could belong to any of the students at Grace Hall. It doesn’t have to be Amelia's boot on the ground next to the shape that’s covered with a sheet.

Except that it is Amelia’s boot and the shape under the sheet is Kate’s daughter Amelia, and coming to terms with that reality means that everything Kate always thought she knew about her 15-year-old child was nothing more than a comforting delusion.

As the weeks go by and Kate struggles to make sense of what she’s been told about Amelia’s last moments, things make less and less sense. She goes back to work and finds herself clutching desperately at a vibrant coworker who offers her a hug, knowing it’s wildly inappropriate but needing the contact nevertheless. (She’s certainly not getting comfort from her own mother, who refers to Amelia’s death as “that whole terrible mess” and advises Kate to “look on the bright side.”)

Barely reconciled to the “official” finding that her distraught daughter jumped to her death after being accused of cheating, Kate’s map of reality is redrawn once again when she receives an anonymous text that simply says, “Amelia didn’t jump.”  Spurred into action by that text, and those that follow, Kate’s odyssey into the unknown territory of her daughter’s life brings her face to face with her own unshared secrets and the consequences of holding them close.

Kate and Amelia’s stories run on parallel tracks through most of the book, only occasionally crossing each other and then only briefly. These chapters are interlaced with Facebook posts and blog entries and email chat logs from the days leading up to Amelia’s death. Those little “extras” not only bring the reader into Amelia’s secret life, they also make us complicit in her secrets. This post-epistolary-novel narrative technique has been used before but rarely as effectively and seamlessly as it is used here. Kimberly McCreight is working with multiple points of view and she is pitch perfect in capturing both Kate’s and Amelia’s voices as well as those of the large and varied group of supporting characters who inhabit both their worlds.

As with Megan Abbott’s best-selling novel The End of Everything, this is a story about secrets even best friends don’t share and about a corrosive reality lurking behind a pleasant façade of normality. Kate’s questions make her uncomfortable, but not half as uncomfortable as they make others who have an interest in keeping appearances up and in making sure questions remain unanswered.

But Kate isn’t the only one with questions and she definitely isn’t the only one who thinks that what happened to Amelia was not in character. …there are a lot of kids at Grace Hall who don’t have their heads screwed on straight, one teacher confides to Kate, but Amelia wasn’t one of them.

Reconstructing Amelia is a terrific debut, a book to build a career on. McCreight’s plotting is meticulous, weaving clues and hints and insinuations into the fabric of her mystery, misdirecting her readers but never lying to them.

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Katherine Tomlinson lives in Los Angeles in an apartment where her TBR pile has its own bookcase. She writes dark fiction but has a soft spot for cozy mysteries, heroic fantasy, and horror novels where only bad people get killed. She is the editor of the upcoming anthology Nightfalls.

Read all posts by Katherine Tomlinson for Criminal Element.

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