(Warning: this post contains some spoilers for Hilary Davidson’s first book, The Damage Done.)
Travel writer Lily Moore is no stranger to grief; in fact, having weathered both the death of her father when she was a child and the suicide of her mother when she was in college, she’s had to cope with more than her fair share. Lily’s always been a survivor, though, and against all odds, she built for herself a happy life and a successful career. So it’s not like Lily’s grief has ever managed to slow her down.
Not until three months ago, anyway, when she learned of the tragic death of her sister Claudia.
When we meet up with Lily at the start of Hilary Davidson’s The Next One to Fall, she’s a broken woman – a shell of her former self:
When I stepped out of the shower, I bundled my hair into a towel-turban and pulled on a white terry-cloth robe. In the steamed-over mirror, I couldn’t see myself clearly, though I knew a sad-eyed wraith was lurking behind the fog. I was a moving blur, a phantom you caught sight of in your peripheral vision. That was a perfect description for me, I realized. I was a ghost haunting my own life, without purpose or meaning.
Her grief is so acute it’s palpable, and it plays such a significant role in this particular tale, it’s practically a character in and of itself:
Since Claudia had died, my perception of the world had changed. I didn’t feel adventurous anymore; instead, I felt as if I were marking time until my own funeral. Death seemed to trail after me. When I left New York to return to my rented apartment in Barcelona, it tagged along in my suitcase. It was subtle, wary of getting too close too soon, but I felt its taunting presence. It was like a chilly draft that brushed across my throat every now and then, just to remind me it was always close.
I didn’t have any more family for it to steal away. My father, mother, and sister were gone, and there was no extended family that I was in contact with. So death skulked around the edges of my world. It peered into my mind, drinking in the strange, inappropriate thoughts I was having.
And a character with its own arc, no less. It starts out playing the role of antagonist—a dark figure who preys upon Lily’s guilt, her loneliness, and her insecurity, and who is constantly trying to exploit these things in order to force her surrender. And like any good antagonist, it almost succeeds in its nefarious plot:
What scared me was this: sometimes, I hurt so much that I wanted to disappear, too. There were times when I thought I would give anything to make the memories that haunted me go away. I couldn’t do it on my own, and I couldn’t imagine living the rest of my life with them swirling around me, jabbing at me no matter which way I turned. Now that I was completely rootless, lacking family or a real home, I seemed to be standing at the edge of an abyss, ready for a fall of my own.
In the end, however, the balance of power shifts, and grief becomes an unwitting accomplice to Lily in her battle with the book’s true Big Bad:
Something had shifted in the past two days. It wasn’t that my heart was lighter or that I’d come to accept Claudia’s death any better. But instead of feeling sad and empty, I was angry. That childish little note was the coup de grace. I had no plan to let anyone nudge me out of Cusco. It wasn’t that I wanted to be there, but there was nowhere else I wanted to be, and the thought that I’d become such a nervous little mouse that a note would send me off and running was infuriating.
Lots of folks write books featuring grieving protagonists. Too often, though, the fact of that grief is merely one in a list of ultimately unimportant character descriptors: She’s tall. She has brown hair. She’s in mourning.
In The Next One to Fall, Davidson doesn’t just tell you of her heroine’s sorrow—she gives it substance, form, and volition, taking full advantage of its presence in a way I’ve not quite seen before. It’s effective, unique, and thoroughly compelling, and I, for one, can’t wait to see what else Ms. Davidson has up her literary sleeve.
The Next One to Fall by Hilary Davidson is scheduled for release on February 14, 2012. (Could you ask for a better Valentine’s Day present?) In the meantime, however, you can check out my rave review over at The Maine Suspect. (You can also see an an excerpt of the first three chapters right here on Criminal Element.)
Katrina Niidas Holm loves mysteries. She lives in Maine with her husband, fabulously talented pulp writer Chris F. Holm, and a noisy, noisy cat. She writes reviews for The Season E-Zine and The Maine Suspect, and you can find her on Twitter.