I don’t usually read thrillers, a trend that is probably pretty obvious if you even cursorily follow my reviews, but I was intrigued by this one that made the National Book Award longlist. It’s not really that common, at least in my recreational following of the award, for a book categorized as a “thriller” to make the list. (Side note: shout out to libro.fm for the advanced listener’s copy!) And so, here we are.
Rita Todacheene works for the Albuquerque Police Department as a forensic photographer. She’s loved cameras and taking photos since she was a child, and this was one of the only options she could find that provided her a stable income and the chance to take photos. It is, perhaps, just inconvenient (or is it more like fate?) that she is also secretly able to see ghosts. In her job, they sometimes point her to clues that others have overlooked. In her personal life, it caused quite a bit of strife, as her superstitious Navajo reservation community treated her differently, isolated her (with the exception of her grandmother, who raised her), once they found out about her taboo ability. Rita has figured out a way to, for the most part, shut out the ghosts, but the victim of a recent case she photographed just will not leave her alone…and the ghost’s push for vengeance will lead Rita into a dangerous cartel inside-man/cover-up situation.
Well, I can see what made this particular thriller special, a literary sort of mystery, that could get it added to the NBA longlist. The writing is…incredibly evocative. I literally made the note “shit, this opening descriptive monologue is visceral” after the first couple pages. And then it never let up. It’s intense, I can’t lie. The specifics and particulars of the crime scenes Rita photographs are not for the faint-hearted. Seriously, it’s an onslaught of gruesome murder scenes and details. Please be ready: all the content warnings for death and violent death and blood and disfigurement, etc. But the use of the photographs and the perspective of the photographer as a narrative device works really well. It adds so much to the tangibility of the narrative. This is just writing that sticks to your bones. And I enjoyed the way the ending took “making peace with death” to a whole new/different level.
Rita’s personal development throughout the novel kept me interested. The story is told in dual storylines. One of the past, as Rita grows up and realizes both that she has the “gift” of seeing ghosts, as well as the turbulent home life that she was thrust into off the reservation as a result of the visions of ghosts and communication with the dead that people’s superstitions made it too hard to live alongside. One in the present, as Rita struggles to help her victim’s ghost get answers, and revenge, while trying to balance her own relationships and jobs and normal life stressors. It took me longer to get into the “past” storyline, but about halfway through it got more compelling for me, and the way it built from there, alongside the mystery in the present, balanced well. I loved Rita’s relationship with her grandmother, it was an overall highlight, for me, as it was nuanced and genuine in both its flaws and its fullness. Tied in with that, the thread of Navajo culture/traditions/beliefs and contemporary history interspersed lightly, but thoroughly, throughout was phenomenal. It was beautifully tender and esteemed, while Emerson showed great insight into the complexities of the advantages and disadvantages of being raised solely on the reservation versus in combination with off-reservation life (both the involuntary, like the residential schools, and the self-determined).
Interestingly, I feel like the literary side of this novel overshadowed the mystery/thriller aspects a little too much. Like, I felt a weirdly low amount of tension while reading, considering the intensity and high-stakes situation of the plot and the life-threatening situations Rita finds herself in. Also, there was some plot stuff that either didn’t feel right or wasn’t my cup of tea. First, and this is my thing with thrillers, something always happens that feels too convenient or easy (in this case, the party photos and, really, information she gets from a “retired” detective seemed like it came too easy – like, is he not afraid of backlash or whatever?!). Also, unrelated to most of the rest of the plot, she had a one-night stand with a guy who then never came back…and he was supposed to? It felt like both an unnecessary plot point that then turned into a loose/hanging thread by the end and I felt we could have done without that half-hearted attempt to highlight that Rita “also has a personal life/life outside work.” Her friends felt similarly “iffy” as far as their development and role(s) in the greater plot – more convenient than worth being developed in their own right.
Overall, I just don’t know about this one. I realize that I might be biased because it’s not my typical genre. And there were parts that were great – the writing was a real highlight and the cultural aspects were phenomenal. I also thought the concept was so cool, the idea of ghosts helping a forensic photographer find evidence to capture is wonderful in theory and vision. But the plot and development left something to be desired. And the combination of literary fiction and thriller wasn’t enough of either/both together. So, in the end, this maybe was just…not enough…for me.