REVIEW: The Enemy at Home by Kevin O’Brien
1943, Seattle. While raging war reshapes the landscape of Europe, its impact is felt thousands of miles away too. Before the war, Nora Kinney was one of countless housewives and mothers in her comfortable Capitol Hill neighborhood. Now, with her doctor husband stationed in North Africa, Nora feels compelled to do more than tend her victory garden or help with scrap metal drives . . .
At the Boeing B-17 plant, Nora learns to wield a heavy riveting gun amid the deafening noise of the assembly line—a real-life counterpart to “Rosie the Riveter” in the recruitment posters. Yet while the country desperately needs their help, not everyone is happy about “all these women” taking over men’s jobs. Nora worries that she is neglecting her children, especially her withdrawn teenage son. But amid this turmoil, a sinister tragedy occurs: One of Nora’s coworkers is found strangled in her apartment, dressed in an apron, with a lipstick smile smeared on her face.
It’s the beginning of a terrifying pattern, as women war-plant workers like Nora are targeted throughout Seattle and murdered in the same ritualistic manner. And eclipsing Nora’s fear for her safety is her secret, growing conviction that she and the killer are connected—and that the haven that was her home has become her own personal battlefield . . .
CW/TW – racial, lgbtqia+, and ethnic slurs are used by some minor characters. Japanese internment camps are mentioned. One minor character commits suicide. One character is bullied.
Dear Mr. O’Brien,
Looking for something slightly different but the same, I came across “The Enemy at Home”. Yes it’s another World War II book but it’s not about a librarian or a library (though there is one short scene in the Seattle Library). No, it’s a murder/thriller with a killer after the “homefront heroines” working in Seattle. Since heroine Nora works riveting the tail sections of B-17s, I won’t get too upset about the ubiquitous planes on the (otherwise nice) cover.
Nora isn’t a single mother but with her doctor husband over in North Africa doing his part for the war effort, she feels like it. Oldest child Chris worries Nora sometimes as she feels he has few friends at school but Nora’s guiltily glad that a teen who treated Chris badly is out of his life while she worries about another she thinks is a bully. Daughter Jane talks non-stop and somehow manages to evade her KP duty in the kitchen after an exhausted Nora finishes work, gets groceries, walks home (gas coupons only last so long), and cooks dinner.
Writing to her husband Pete, Nora tries to only include upbeat, happy news but in truth she’s barely keeping up with all the plates she’s juggling. Some of the men at the plant make her life hell but the two new friends she’s made say they do that to most of the new women. When her much younger brother unexpectedly arrives, Nora is happy to see him but worried as charming Ray has a habit of causing trouble. As word of the “Rosie Ripper” spreads, women are terrified and carrying everything from knitting needles to ice picks to protect themselves. But Nora has even more on her mind as family issues and a new tenant have her rethinking trusting anyone.
Yes to more WWII novels set in the US homefront. I’ve read a few but I’d love to see more. One thing I need to mention right off the bat is the abundance of exposition at the beginning. Also the fact that sometimes it’s awkwardly shoved right in the middle of the action in a scene. For instance, Nora will be standing beside the tail of a B-17 with a riveting gun in her hand, listening to an asshole yelling at her and then she’ll drift off into thought for a few pages before the action picks up again. Once a lot of background information was covered, there was less of this but it sucked the intensity out of a few scenes at the beginning.
Nora is a hardworking wife and mother trying to keep her family and house going while also doing her part. The extra money certainly helps as now that Pete is in the Army Medical Corp, they don’t have his former (much higher) monthly pay anymore. She, along with most of the other women doing war work, still face misogyny both in the plants and everywhere else. Her family has also been targeted for their former Japanese-American tenants and because her son helps the German Jewish refugee who lives up the street.
It doesn’t take Nora long to connect the murders taking place near her even if the police aren’t saying anything. At the same time, she begins doubting much of what her son is telling her when she catches him sneaking into their house at all hours. Brother Ray manages to get some information out of Chris but tells Nora that he knows Chris is not telling some big secret that is weighing on him. There are lots of men at the plants who resent the fact that women are working there now and the wounded son of one of Nora’s work friends worries his mother by being out all night. Plenty of suspects are there but there are few answers as to what they’re doing. I think all these red herrings are handled well, having damning circumstantial evidence yet also plausible deniability.
The scenes of the murders are frightening. I want to yell at the victims to run, scream, or do something. Don’t just deny what you hear or the fear you feel. And yet how many times do we all do just that? Women especially don’t want to make a fuss. I figured out one twist in the plot but watching everything come together is still chilling as well as satisfying. At one point though, I wondered if part of a scene was an homage to the “don’t go down to the basement” moments in horror movies. I’m still processing the outcome and what certain characters chose to do. Yeah …. it does make sense but it’s a heavy load to bear.
Now for some warnings. Note the CW/TW at the top. There are some LGBTQ+ characters who have to clue Nora in about the things they do daily to fit in and avoid harassment. An African American character is called a slur and Nora gets dirty looks for laughing with him as they work. Nora also does some nice things for some Japanese Americans as well as advises some others to do something that horrified me. So fair warning people. B