He Said/She Said by Erin Kelly is a gripping tale of the lies we tell to save ourselves, the truths we cannot admit, and how far we will go to make others believe our side of the story (available June 6, 2017).
I almost don’t know how to discuss this tremendously affecting, tremendously disturbing book. It has so many twists that to bring up the themes I felt most important—the ones that resonated most with me—feels like I’m doing you, the reader, a disservice by forewarning you of things you’ll want to discover for yourself.
So what’s safe to talk about? Well, there’s Laura and Kit, a young couple fresh out of university. Kit was brought up to chase eclipses, and he’s drawn Laura into the scene—half-hardcore science, half-Burning Man hedonism—as well. Honestly, when I picked up the book, I hadn’t the slightest interest in eclipse chasing. Its devotees travel the world searching for the right time, place, and most importantly, weather to experience totality, which is the brief period in which the moon completely covers the sun. But then Erin Kelly describes it, and I completely understand why people do it if their experiences are like this:
A ring of white light surrounded the sun, one pure diamond flare teetering at the tip, and then the switch of totality was thrown. […] The moon was a black disc covering the sun and streamers of plasma flared out, like a gas ring being ignited. “Is it safe?” I asked Kit. I meant can I take my [safety] glasses off but the question felt bigger, too. Is it safe to be alive, on this spinning ball of rock in the sky? Is it safe to be this small? Are we going to be all right?
He removed my glasses in answer and I looked with naked eyes at the coal-black ball in the sky. I knew all the theory, I knew I was looking at vast promontories of hydrogen gas, but as I stood there I could think only in terms of gods and magic. The corona danced, a living golden flare twice as big as the sun itself. A star is not an angel but a monster. It was so huge that it made everything that had happened to us, everything we had done, seem tiny. Regret, guilt, and fear melted away.
It’s after a less spectacular eclipse in Cornwall that conscientious, compassionate Laura stumbles across what looks like a man brutally assaulting a woman. She has Kit go for the police as she tries to shield the woman, Beth, from further harm. Laura and Kit testify against the man, Jamie, at his rape trial, and soon after, a grateful Beth shows up on their doorstep. But things soon take a sinister turn, and Laura and Kit find themselves changing their identities, abandoning their old lives, and going deep into hiding.
Fifteen years pass, and Laura is finally pregnant after years of unsuccessful fertility treatments. Kit is about to embark on his last eclipse chase before the babies arrive, even as Laura fights the crippling anxiety and paranoia that have haunted her since they fled Beth’s attentions. But Kit isn’t as careful as he should be, and the demons of the past will finally come roaring back into their lives, changing everything forever.
Ms. Kelly writes with an unerring eye for both detail and emotion, and wow can she write a twist! She examines the many traumas men and women inflict upon one another in ways that can both disorient and shatter. There were stretches in the middle where I felt so uncomfortable with where she was going, even though I knew, instinctively, that she wasn’t doing it just to be sensationalist but to build to a bigger, more important point regarding the way women are treated even in these modern times. And, oh, how gratified I was by that ending!
Above all, Ms. Kelly knows how to write about love in its many forms, perhaps none more purely romantic than that between the young couple at the heart of this book. Kit wakes Laura one night early in their relationship to ask her something that’s been weighing on his mind in this achingly lovely passage:
He sounded on the edge of tears as he took my hot hands in his cold ones. “This. Us. Is it the same for you as it is for me? Because if it isn’t…” He was shaking. I finished the sentence for him in my head. Because if it isn’t, I don’t think I can handle it. Because if it isn’t, end it now. I wanted to laugh at the simple beauty of it, but could tell how much courage it had taken him to ask.
“It’s the same for me,” I said. “I promise. It’s the same.”
That conversation was our marriage proposal. From the following day we talked unselfconsciously in terms of “when we’re married,” of our future children, the house we’d live in when we were old, and when Kit spoke of eclipses he would travel to ten, twenty, thirty years in the future, it was taken for granted that I would be there too, holding his hand under the shadow.
He Said/She Said isn’t an easy read (though it is definitely a page-turner! I finished it in the course of a busy weekend), dealing as it does with sexual violence, obsession, and trauma, but it’s well worth the emotional effort. It’s a layered and sophisticated psychological thriller that isn’t afraid to get ugly in search of the truth. I loved it.
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.
Read all posts by Doreen Sheridan for Criminal Element.