When is a mystery not a mystery? When it’s a platform to question journalistic integrity.
There’s a serial killer loose in a coastal English town and he’s left a present for Amber. When she finds the girl, she immediately panics. Not because she’s just found a dead body, but because finding the body puts her in the path of the media. Because Amber is really Anabel Oldacre – the eleven year-old girl villainized for her role in the death of a four year old girl.
Bel was a child from a wealthy background that had turned her into a hard, unlovable child who knows that best way to hide is to lie. But she’s not a bad kid.
Kirsty gets the call to do a feature story on the murder. Essentially, a puff piece in the Sunday section, but she takes it. If she ever wants to get on the crime beat, she needs to take every opportunity she can. It isn’t until she arrives in town that she stumbles across Amber and is forced to confront her childhood as Jade Walker.
Poor, hungry, written off by her town and family, Jade was Bel’s partner in crime and equally responsible for Chloe’s death.
On the surface, this could be viewed as a pretty straight forward mystery novel, but what it really is, is a denouncement of how society and the media failed these two girls.
If the woman in the corner store had just taken Jade’s money and let her buy her chocolate bar, none of the future events would have happened. Jade would have bought her candy, went home, been beaten for stealing from her father, and most likely gone on to become a teen parent or hooligan – much like her siblings.
If Bel’s parents had taken her on vacation instead of leaving her with the housekeeper, none of these events would have happened. Bel would have received a private education, continued to be molested by her step-father, and become just as cold and closed off as her mother.
There seem to be no good options here. Both of these girls have fallen through the cracks of their respective upbringings.
Instead, Jade couldn’t buy her chocolate bar, so Bel stole one for her. Two girls, who may never have otherwise crossed paths, end up spending the day together. Jade’s older brother and his tryst of the day force them to watch the whiney and upset Chloe.
What starts as a strange day, turns into the worst possible day when Bel loses her temper, pushes Chloe, and causes her death. It should have ended there, but Bel’s life-long training to hide anything unpleasant kicks in and they decide to lie to avoid getting in trouble. It’s easy to say they should have known better, but they were kids – driven by the overwhelming urge not to get in trouble.
We learn about this awful day through flashbacks as Amber (Bel) and Kirsty (Jade) struggle to keep their identities secret. The rest of the world learned about ‘that day’ through the media. A media that painted these two girls as pint-sized killers who brutally attacked and tortured the four-year-old. How this image was created, we don’t know. The story of the trial isn’t told in this story because it’s irrelevant. It is what happened and now these are the lives they have to live. Everything in their life has been determined by the media’s overwhelming drive to get the good story – regardless of truth.
Amber is no longer in wealthy socialite circles – not after being named the ringleader and left her to rot in the worst possible facilities for youth. Now she hides in the faceless world of nightshift employees.
In some ways, that day’s events were good for Kirsty. She was proclaimed the innocent victim of Bel’s control, so she went to a good facility, got an education, got married, has kids, and became a journalist. She hides in the world that destroyed her. They’re so busy looking for her that they never see who she really is.
When Amber’s identity finally comes out, she steps forward to protect Jade after another terrible accident. Amber’s already been brutalized by the media – again – and she’s never going to find a way out of it. She’s free now. She doesn’t have to hide anymore.
Kirsty escapes the media. Escapes the reveal of who she is. Escapes being the wax figure she sees of herself. Goes home to her husband and kids. To her job. To her life. To hiding – forever. She’ll never be free.
In the end, no one wins. This is not a happy story. The characters aren’t likable. It’s not about the mystery. It’s about the sadness that can be shoveled onto you by people you don’t even know. Marwood is a journalist in her other career, and from reading this, I think she condemns a lot of her peers. Journalistic spin ruins lives over and over again and society is so thirsty for drama we never question it. This novel is not a mystery; it is a life question – when did we stop demanding truth in exchange for entertainment? How can we throw around our freedoms of speech and press so ignorantly? Do we even deserve them anymore?