I’ve expressed feelings about unreliable narrators before, but each new book using it seems to change my opinion just a little—usually for good but sometimes for bad. Unreliable narrators can be a huge boon or bust for a thriller. I’ve thought about it for a while now, and I’m not sure which the unreliable narrator in Quiet in Her Bones is.
In New Zealand, Aariv Rai is a 26-year-old bestselling author of a thriller that is mainly a success, according to some readers and critics, only because of the twist at the end. Still, it has set him up as being more or less independently wealthy—which is good, considering his rich father has never thought much of his career path. The two are flung again into the same quarters as Aariv comes back to his childhood home to recuperate from a car crash that put him in a coma. His broken leg and minor brain damage becomes the least of his problems when the police come calling: They’ve found the car Aariv’s mother drove away from the house on a rainy night ten years before—and some bones inside thought to be her remains.
For the last decade, her disappearance has haunted Aariv, along with his memories of that night. As the police pursue their investigation, Aariv tries to answer questions of his own. The neighborhood, called simply the Cul-de-Sac, is full of close-knit neighbors that all seem to be keeping their own secrets. Aariv plums the depths of his memory, though even his mind is becoming increasingly untrustworthy, something even he has to admit after he has a conversation with his (minor spoiler) dead ex-girlfriend. His quest to find his mother’s killer reaches desperate new heights—he’s not simply searching for justice and answers, but he hopes to prove his own innocence, too.
There are a lot of cool things going on in Quiet in Her Bones. Rather than relying on mental illness for the unreliable narrator, author Nalini Singh uses recovery from trauma and prescription-medication mix-ups as the fuel for this twisty thriller. Singh also relies on trauma of many different types: Aariv has a lot of trauma from his mother’s disappearance and his girlfriend’s death, but also from his father and mother’s constant and frequently violent fights. There’s also generational trauma from his mother’s upbringing in an impoverished rural village in India. Singh shows well how deep those wounds can go and how long the hurt can last. It’s also refreshing to see a clearly unreliable narrator whose guilt or innocence is unclear even to themselves who is also male, since most in the archetype seem to be female.
Aariv naturally spends a lot of time in memory—memories of that night of his mother’s disappearance, memories of his parents’ relationship, memories of his boyhood in that neighborhood full of secrets. Such dives into nostalgia and trauma are necessary for the narrative to a certain extent. But Aariv darts so deeply into memory with no vile between the now and then that it’s hard to keep track of where and when we are in the story. This, by extension, sometimes makes it confusing and hard to keep invested.
The pacing, too, made it a bit hard for me to tear through the book like I otherwise would have liked to. I think the main culprit, along with the aforementioned deep and prolonged dives into memory, is actually the way Singh structures the book’s chapters. There are 63 chapters plus an epilogue, and the majority of those chapters are only several pages long. Within those pages, Singh has several of the one-liners that gives, by virtue of standing apart from the rest, a little more weight than the rest of the prose. Rather, they’re supposed to, but that effect is diminished by their volume. Same with the chapter breaks; instead of giving us a change of scenery or time period (which would actually be useful here), Singh often splits chapters in the middle of a scene and transports us elsewhere (or elsewhen?) in the middle of the next chapter. This might not be something that irritates the casual reader and it honestly might be a more common convention in New Zealand writing, but this was something that frustrated me constantly.
As Aariv knows from his fictional success, a thriller lives and dies by how well it sticks the landing. It’s difficult to talk about the ending of any book, let alone a mystery, without committing that sin of all sins: the spoiler. I won’t do that, but I was a little frustrated at how abruptly the ending came. From Aariv’s first inklings of the truth to the final climax was only a few (again, very short and plentiful) chapters from the end. The epilogue cleared up everything with about as much subtlety as the end of a poor Sherlock Holmes adaptation. A few questions were answered in the last chapter, but the vast majority of those answers came in the few pages of the epilogue.
At one point, Aariv remembers how his girlfriend used to teasingly criticize his penchant for seeking out, printing off, and feeding poor reviews into the fire. I hope Singh didn’t take that little detail from real life. I don’t think this is a bad review, per se, because there were some really interesting things about Quiet in Her Bones and I have thought about it since reading The End. But some of the things I keep thinking about are the things that frustrated me. It’s almost like missing someone who’s gone—)what you miss is the good times, but something as complex as a person comes with a lot of frustrations, too.