Review: Bonfire by Krysten Ritter

Bonfire by Krysten Ritter is a gripping, tightly wound suspense novel about a woman forced to confront her past in the wake of small-town corruption (available November 7, 2017).

Krysten Ritter is an accomplished actress known for her roles in Breaking Bad, Don’t Trust the B—— in Apartment 23, and most recently, Jessica Jones and The Defenders. With these kinds of acting credentials under her belt, it should come as no surprise that Ritter can handle the portrayal of complex characters and translate that skill into novel writing. Bonfire, Ritter’s debut novel, is a character-driven mystery set in a small Indiana town complete with big corporate conspiracy, painfully awkward high school reunions, and a heroine who’s battling against one of the most common problems women face: not being believed.

Abby Williams is an environmental lawyer working in Chicago when a compelling case crosses her desk and sends her back to her hometown of Barrens, Indiana. Painful memories of her past begin to resurface as she runs into some familiar faces and checks out old haunts.

There are a lot of things I’ve never forgotten about Barrens—a lot of things I can’t forget. The smell of chicken farms in the summertime. The feeling of being stuck in the wrong place, or in the wrong body, or both. The pitch-black night, the silence.

But I have forgotten this: you can’t go anywhere in this town without running into someone. It’s one of the first things you shed in a city, the feeling of being watched, observed, and noticed; the feeling of racketing like a pinball between familiar people and place, and no way to get out.

Abby was an outcast as a teen and harshly bullied by the more popular girls. Then, those girls started getting sick. Blame was cast upon Optimal Plastics, the megacorp that seemed to have taken over the town with jobs and strategic donations. Kaycee Mitchell—the most popular of the girls and Abby’s former childhood best friend—disappeared, and the rest of the girls recanted, saying their illnesses were faked. But Abby can’t shake the feeling that something went horribly wrong and perhaps Kaycee wasn’t faking it after all.

Fast-forward to present day: Abby’s firm is tasked with investigating Optimal Plastics due to complaints about contaminants in the drinking water. Abby’s colleagues are pretty set on keeping the investigation focused on the present and what they can prove now, but Abby can’t let go of what happened to Kaycee. While she’s supposed to be finding witnesses for their case, she instead tries to track down her former best friend and uncovers so much more than she bargained for about the people she went to high school with.

At the heart of it all is Abby’s instinct that something back then was not what it seemed. But everywhere she turns, no one believes her or they minimize her fear by blaming it on stress or drinking. For this thriller, I think that’s the most terrifying thing of all.

We can do anything we want with them. Jake Erickson’s voice fills up my head. They let us. And why not? It’s not like they’re going to complain afterward.

I stand up, suddenly dizzy. “I’m sorry,” I say, without knowing exactly what I’m sorry for.

For her daughter, for her job, for that sophomore behind the Dumpsters, men who get to do anything they want, and the people who are taken advantage of.

Because isn’t that, ultimately, what the case comes down to?

There are the people of the world who squeeze and the ones who suffocate.

Interestingly, it was Marvel’s Jessica Jones that most recently brought the rarely talked about concept of gaslighting into our larger cultural conversation. “It’s not like they’re going to complain afterward.” The unspoken implication here is that women don’t complain about their abuse because they are afraid no one will believe them. Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse and manipulation that seeks to cause doubt and confusion in a victim by denying his or her memories, causing the victim to question everything and feel like they’re going crazy. 

While some of what Abby experiences is definitely intentional gaslighting, the fact that even her closest friend at the firm doesn’t believe her recollections regarding Kaycee is alarming and a bit of unintentional gaslighting as well. And it’s this attitude towards Abby that leads her to take matters into her own hands. No one believes her, so she has to find the evidence herself, which leads her into life-threatening situations that could have been avoided if she’d just had a friend on her side.

While Abby’s story is obviously an extreme case, I think the novel does an excellent job of showing what it’s like to not be believed. To feel crazy for being the only one trying to do the right thing or for just trying to tell the truth about someone or something. And the danger that women often put themselves through because they lack allies or even just the benefit of the doubt. For men, especially, who want to learn empathy and put themselves in the shoes of women everywhere, I’d highly recommend picking up Ritter’s powerful novel, Bonfire.

 

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Ardi Alspach was born in Florida, raised in South Carolina, and now resides in New York City with her cat and an apartment full of books. By day, she's a publicist, and by night, she's a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter at @ardyceelaine or check out her website at ardyceelaine.wordpress.com.

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