REVIEW: Quiet in Her Bones by Nalini Singh
Dear Nalini Singh:
A friend alerted me to this book, knowing I was a reader of both your Psy/Changeling series and, in recent years, of the thriller/suspense genre. I was curious to see how my two interests would converge here.
The book is narrated by Aarav Rai, an author whose first novel unexpectedly became a best seller and was made into a blockbuster movie. As the story opens, Aarav is recovering from a serious car accident at his father’s home. The police show up with unwelcome news: after ten years, Aarav’s missing mother Nina has been found. When she disappeared, it was believed by some that she stole money from her husband and fled to start a new life. Aarav doesn’t know if he ever believed that, and now the proof of another, grimmer fate has arrived: bones found in Nina’s green Jaguar at the bottom of a ravine very near the Rai house.
Aarav is 26 years old and troubled. He’s had great success with his writing, but his personal life is a mess. He’s recently quit drinking, after realizing his consumption was out of control. He’s haunted by the one that got away, his last (only?) serious girlfriend, Paige. Aarav hates his father and he hasn’t begun to deal with the trauma of his mother’s disappearance, nor the twisted and co-dependent relationship the two of them had. The physical damage from his recent accident is severe: he has one leg in a boot, limiting his mobility; his lungs were damaged where a tree branch impaled him; and he suffered a brain injury as well.
The family home, where Aarav grew up, is located in a small, ultra-private gated cul-de-sac on the edge of the forest in Auckland. He was his parents’ only child, though his father has a daughter with his second wife (he divorced Nina in absentia a few years after she disappeared). As it becomes clear that Nina’s death was no accident (her bones were found in the passenger side of the car), Aarav begins to scrutinize the neighbors for clues as to who would have wanted to harm his mother. He also suspects his father; the night Nina disappeared, his parents fought (a frequent occurrence) and Aarav heard a scream before running outside in time to see his mother’s car driving off in a severe rainstorm.
Aarav is a classic unreliable narrator. Between the lingering effects of his accident, various medications he takes for his physical recovery and mental health, sleeping problems, and his massive sugar habit, his grip on reality often seems compromised. I wondered if the sugar thing was meant as a stand-in for alcohol; I know some alcoholics develop a sweet tooth after they stop drinking. But Aarav drinks so much Coke and eats so much chocolate it just about made *me* queasy reading about it. It’s no wonder he can’t think straight; he even straight up hallucinates at one point. (He also sleepwalks on occasion.)
The ghost of Nina hangs over Quiet in her Bones, and though I think we’re meant to see her as compelling, whew, she was not a very sympathetic character. Of course, she didn’t deserve her fate, and to be fair she was plucked from a comparatively sheltered life in an Indian village and chosen to be the wife of a man who was controlling, adulterous, emotionally and occasionally physically abusive. But the hold she has over Aarav is creepy; he demurs that it’s “not like that”, but sometimes it seems to be a little bit like that, skating on the edge of incestuousness. At one point Aarav muses on the time a teenage friend tells him that Nina is hot:
Her lush and scalding heat had alternately confused and angered me.
In summary, Nina is one of those beautiful, doomed, tragic, unstable characters who I suspect are a lot more enthralling if you don’t actually have to deal with them.
The plot suffered from a surfeit of characters – I’m used to that in the Psy/Changeling world where there are well over a dozen books and the characters are all heavily interrelated. Here, everyone was new, and there were just too many of them: the neighboring couple whose wife was Nina’s best friend, the lesbian couple with the mother-in-law who may have seen something the night Nina disappeared; the aging ex-rocker couple; another couple that didn’t even live in the cul-de-sac when Nina disappeared so I don’t get why we have to read about them. There’s also a family where Aarev suspects both the father (he may have had an affair with Nina) and the son (it’s complicated, but he has a few reasons for resenting Nina).
That’s not even everyone in the cul-de-sac. Outside the cul-de-sac, there’s the young woman who runs the local café, whom Aarav has history with (and whom Nina treated like garbage when she was the family maid), the fitness instructor who seems to do more than train with half of the women in the cul-de-sac, and Aarav’s father’s ex-mistress, a later comer in the suspect category. There are several subplots that may or may not be related to the main mystery, including the estrangement between Nina’s best friend and her sister, a detour into domestic violence, and a poisoned dog (I really didn’t see the reason for that plot point, at all).
Too many characters meant too many suspects, which left the resolution feeling half-random. (There were a few clues spread throughout, but in retrospect I don’t see how anyone could have figured out the ending on those clues alone.)
Then there is Aarav himself, who is not a particularly compelling or relatable narrator. He considers himself to be a sociopath, and it feels like a bit of a humblebrag coming from him. (Because of his self-diagnosis and other factors, he sometimes suspects himself in his mother’s murder.)
Aarav loved his mother, he maybe loved Paige, he loves his little sister and seems to care for his father’s somewhat downtrodden second wife. He has one friend, a friendship he thinks is mostly based on both parties’ abilities to tolerate the other person. I didn’t dislike Aarav but I also didn’t like him, nor did I feel much for him. I found myself irritated with him on more than one occasion; he has the modern unreliable narrator compulsion to self-destructive behavior, and I wanted to tell him to get it together.
The setting is effectively rendered, with the sprawl of urban Auckland meeting residing uneasily alongside lush forests and beaches.
Quiet in her Bones held my attention and kept me turning the pages to find out the resolution, which is my main requirement in the mystery/suspense/thriller genre. So in spite of my criticisms, my grade for it was a B.