Bonfire by Krysten Ritter

Abby Williams walked away from her life in Barrens, Indiana, and never looked back. She moved forward, becoming a successful environmental lawyer in Chicago, but something is about to bring her home for the first time in ten years.

Optimal Plastics dominates the town but there are serious concerns about the effects on the locals of the factories. And more disturbing to Abby – more disturbing that the faces from her past that she had long tried to forget – is the similarity to something that happened when she was at school there. When the popular girls all became mysteriously ill. When the most popular girl in school, Kaycee Williams, vanished without a trace…

As Abby begins to dig, not just into Optimal Plastics, but also into the past, she becomes convinced that everything is connected. And that someone is determined to keep the past buried.

It’s been a while since I tackled a modern thriller – not since A Patient Fury. I’ve been drifting away from the genre – picked up a couple in the meantime to try but they all just seemed same-y. The usual did-the-boyfriend-do-it-unreliable-narrator stuff. But it was clear from the start, this was something different.

I took a look at Bonfire for two reasons. First, I’m a big fan of Jessica Jones, the Netflix show which Krysten Ritter stars in. Second, a tweet about the book referring to Ritter as “the girlfriend from Breaking Bad”, ignoring two shows in which she played the lead. Not entirely sure why this bothered me so much, but my reaction was to give the book a go, so, probably in the wrong way, it worked.

And this is an impressive debut. Abby’s character – who narrates the tale – is incredibly layered, a vulnerable but tough, smart but capable of making bad (some very bad) choices. The “About The Author” section reveals that Krysten Ritter founded a production company that aims to highlight complex female protagonists. Well, she certainly has one here. And I think one of the main achievements here is that Abby is still likeable – when she hurts (and she goes through a lot here) you feel it too.

The blurb describes this as “slow-burning” and it does take a while for the plot to get going, although the narrative is strong enough to keep the reader hooked, and when the plot accelerates in the second half, the effect of the build-up is to make the ending more powerful. There’s a decent mystery under the surface as well, although that’s not the primary strength of the story, and credit to Ritter for taking the time to drop some actual clues into the story.

A very pleasant surprise, this one. A powerful thriller with a compelling voice. Highly Recommended.

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