When I started reading The Gone Dead I was expecting a thriller, something in the realms of When No One is Watching or with the setting and tone of Sharp Objects. What The Gone Dead is not so much of crime/thriller story but a narrative that focuses on depicting a certain community, exploring its racist history and its existing racial tension as well as providing a sobering picture of the socio-economic struggles experienced by many of its inhabitants (such as poverty and addiction). The supposed mystery that drives the narrative is not a mystery, not really. Readers will probably be able to tell what truly happened to the main character’s father, a Black poet who died in a small town on the Mississippi Delta in the the early 70s in what was at the time deemed to be an accident. Although many of the chapters focus on his daughter, Billie, who is in her late thirties and through her grandmother’s death has recently inherited her father’s house, many switch to secondary, even tertiary, characters, providing us with glimpses into their perspectives and lives.
As with many stories focusing on a character returning to their small hometown after years away, Billie’s amateurish investigation into her father’s death inevitably puts her in danger.
Before I move onto the reasons why I did not particularly love this novel, I first want to talk about what Benz excels at, and that is the setting. Benz vividly portrayal of this small community emphasises many of its shortcomings: there is a general small-mindedness, a racial divide, a distrust of strangers, a reverence of the olden days. Benz’s capture the atmosphere of this town and many of Billie’s encounters with the locals are pervaded by a sense of unease.
In addition, Benz’s social commentary is sharp-witted and her dialogues are on point.
The storyline itself suffers from pacing issues. Benz reveals much too soon certain details about Billie’s father’s death so that the story lost much of its momentum in the very first part of the novel. Billie herself is not a particularly compelling or fleshed out character. The people around her, even if at times a bit one note, were far more interesting. Whereas the author really explores the setting, from its history to its present day, Billie remains a half-formed thing. She seemed to exist only from the moment she steps into her father’s old house, before that, nothing. Her past and current jobs, relationships, and friendships remain largely absent. That she never thinks of her life before venturing into this small town seemed weird to me. Her personality too was almost nonexistent. She is her father’s daughter, and that’s it. She makes lots of stupid and impulsive decisions and then goes on to be amazed by the dangerous situations she lands herself in.
There is a quasi-love story which felt really out of place, especially considering her initial suspicions towards this guy (and to be honest, he was bland).
I would have liked to learn more about Billie’s father himself, as the man ultimately remains but a vague impression of a poet. Billie’s mother, who is dead by the start of the novel, receives a similar treatment (she was white and a Medieval historian, and that’s that).
While I liked The Gone Dead‘s grittiness, ultimately, the story and characters failed to grab me. Nevertheless, I would probably read something else by Benz.
my rating: ★★★☆☆