First things first I need to say a massive thank you to Michael Douglas publishing, for accepting my request to review this book on NetGalley, and NetGalley for the service that they provide.
When I saw ‘What She Left’ described as “the years most haunting and unforgettable debut” and saw it likened to ‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn, a novel I’ve been highly anticipating reading, I knew I couldn’t resist getting my hands on a copy and reading it. I definitely didn’t get what I expected.
‘What She Left’ starts with the breaking news of the death of Alice Salmon, a young girl whose body was found floating in a river in Southampton. It seems like a clear cut case – she had 210mg of alcohol in her bloodstream after all – but not everything is what it seems. An anthropologist from the university that Alice attended, Professor Jeremy Cooke, decides to take it upon himself to investigate Alice’s life and the events leading up to the moment that she died, needing to find out for himself what had happened to this bright, promising spark.
The thing that really made this book stand out from the crowd was the form that it was written in – or rather, the forms. Taking place in a variety of different mediums, including Twitter messages, blog posts, emails, letters, diary entries, interviews and articles, it’s a startling but highly effective mixture of many different methods of keeping records. Professor Cooke references throughout the fact that social media gives young people an omniscient presence in every aspect of life, and it’s very cleverly conveyed when the death of Alice permeates so many different areas. This novel definitely felt more like a case file and a collation of information, rather than a story, which I thought would be something that would appeal to me more, but one of the appeals with case files and non-fiction works is the fact that you can then go and do other research and look into other aspects of the case, but with this being a completely fictional one it left me with a feeling of yearning.
I will be honest and say that some bits of the novel did completely throw me. A lot of the early entries are referred back to repeatedly towards the middle and end of the novel, meaning that throughout the first half of the book you receive a lot of loose ends that you don’t really know what to do with. Eventually, everything will get wrapped up and pulled together nicely, but it takes a lot of perseverance through the beginning of the novel to really start getting any of the answers you’ll be wanting to find out.
I’m not going to go too much into the plot twists or the characters in this novel, because I really do think this is one that it’s better to discover on your own – I saw a lot of the little reveals coming, but some of them might shock other readers, it could just be that I was being overly perceptive or increasingly paranoid throughout, leaving me questioning and re-questioning every bit of information we encountered. Similarly, a lot of the characters will have changed a lot from your first perceptions by the end of the novel, so I won’t go too deeply into that either – this is definitely a case of the less said the better.
However, even though I did really enjoy the mystery, thriller aspect, I still felt confused and emotionally detached from the novel at multiple points throughout due to the writing style and the constant shifting of the form, so I can’t really rate this one too highly. I have a feeling if I read this book again in a few months, with prior knowledge of what happened when, I’ll pick up on a lot more things and feel a lot more for the characters, but at this moment in time that’s not happening. I definitely felt a kind of kinship with Alice – her troubled teenage diary entries will ring true with most every reader – and Professor Cooke had a very distinct voice with his academia littered vocabulary, but other than those two the rest of the characters seemed disposable. I was focusing a heck of a lot of my reading energy on keeping the timelines and the information reveals straight in my head, so as I said this might change on second reading, but at the time I feel no connection at all to this story, which is a shame.
If you enjoy mystery novels, this one is definitely that! But if a constant change of voice and style will throw you off, you might want to go and try a different book.