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Book Review: ‘Penance,’ by Eliza Clark

PENANCE, by Eliza Clark

“Penance,” Eliza Clark’s sophomore novel, begins with a fictional but realistic disclaimer: The following book is a work of nonfiction written by the English journalist Alec Z. Carelli and examining the grisly 2016 murder of a North Yorkshire teenager. “Shortly after publication, several of Carelli’s interviewees publicly accused Carelli of misrepresenting and even fabricating some of the content of their interviews,” the text reads; the author also illegally acquired therapeutic writing by two of the incarcerated perpetrators. We enter this book already aware that our narrator is an untrustworthy one. But as we whip out our imaginary magnifying glasses, distracted by our eagerness to play sleuth and look for the lies in Carelli’s story, Clark shrewdly turns her own lens onto us, onto our obsession with true crime and our complicity in the industry it has spawned.

Carelli lays out the facts of the murder plainly from the start: “At around 4:30 a.m., on 23 June 2016, 16-year-old Joan Wilson was doused in petrol and set on fire after enduring several hours of torture in a small beach chalet.” The assailants were three of her high school classmates — Angelica Stirling-Stewart, Violet Hubbard and Dorothy “Dolly” Hart. As Carelli proceeds through the events leading up to that night, the gyre of his investigation widens, and Joan takes up less and less space in the story of her own death.

Carelli instead bestows most of the narrative weight on the perspectives of her murderers, and on his own suppositions about their motives. Revenge, bullying, betrayal, the dull and bottomless rage of being teenage girls whose lives have been shaped by the abuses of powerful men, a fascination with the occult that goes too far: All of it plays a role in what will happen inside that beach chalet, though our unreliable narrator prevents us from knowing to what extent.

What “Penance” asks us to examine is that very desire of ours to know exactly what happened; the reader is just as impatient as Carelli to set Joan aside in order to spend time in the minds of her killers. Like murder-hungry baby birds, we gobble up all the salacious details that Clark feeds us, but at a cost: The victims in these stories are always more interesting to us as charred corpses than alive.

Clark is disturbingly gifted at inventing unrealities that feel uncannily believable; I’ll confess that I checked Google Maps twice to see if the novel’s Crow-on-Sea setting really existed, though I knew it didn’t. She fabricates a vivid history for her withering coastal resort in the North of England, now “a tourist town with very few tourists,” rived by deep socioeconomic divides and plagued by petty crime and aggressive sea gulls.

Tracing Crow from its Viking origins to its decline in the 1960s to the rise of the right-wing U.K. Independence Party, Clark blends truth and “truth” with such skill that the novel’s borders begin to feel unsettlingly porous. Joan’s murder takes place on the night of the Brexit referendum. Carelli reveals his implication in Rupert Murdoch’s News International phone hacking scandal. Crow is tainted by its connection to a predatory sex offender named Vance Diamond, a Jimmy Savile stand-in with a meticulously described BBC game show of his own. Transcripts from imaginary true-crime podcasts are interspersed throughout, as well as posts from Tumblr communities devoted to sickening murders both real and imagined.

It’s in those dark and queasy corners of the web — home to the Slender Man, serial-killer fan fiction, supernatural folklore designed to seem true — where the social outcasts Violet and Dolly find refuge and community. For them and for Angelica, another social pariah, the allure of internet stories lies in that distortion of the line between fiction and reality. “They were playing pretend,” Clark writes. “And then they were not.”

PENANCE | By Eliza Clark | 328 pp. | Harper | $30

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