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Please See Us by Caitlin Mullen — book review

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“There is something bad in the air and in the water now, something rotten and wrong. A moral disease.”

While Please See Us gives its readers a slightly more innovative “missing women” type-of-story. Providing us with a panoramic of Atlantic City Caitlin Mullen’s novel follows Clara, a young psychic, and Lily who has only recently returned to the city. Between their first-person chapters we have those of Luis, a mute and deaf janitor who works at the same spa as Lily, and those of ‘the Janes’, victims of an unknown serial killer. The quasi-supernatural element gives this rather tired type of story a bit of an edge.
As more women are killed Clara and Lily find themselves embarking on an investigating of sorts.

What Mullen does best in this novel is render Atlantic City’s underbelly. The characters in the story feel stuck in what they rightly perceive to be a city in decline: addiction, prostitution, crime. Life in Atlantic City is not easy and ‘the Janes’ know this better than anyone. Mullen succinctly describes their fears and desires, as well as their circumstances. Some embrace their lifestyle, others believe that they deserve to be degraded and used by men, while some are battling against depression or addiction.

While Mullen manages to make ‘the Janes’ sympathetic without making them strictly likeable, her two main characters were pretty annoying.
Clara, who was raised by her aunt, has led a rather unsupervised life. Alongside her aunt she steals and cons people. Yet, her visions are no farce and she believes that a girl who recently went missing is in danger. Lily, who used to move in New York’s art sphere, finds herself working as a receptionist at a casino’s spa. Her breakup has given her quite a shock and she no longer feels as certain of herself as she used to.
Both Clara and Lily had very self-dramatising narratives. They seem constantly startled by the most ordinary things, and they both go around judging people in the same way…which struck me as weird. They see someone and they seem able to deduce that person’s character and story…Clara, for all her ‘street-smarts’ makes a ton of idiotic choices. Part of me wanted to give Lily a good shake. Much is made of the reason behind her breakup and when we get the details…well, it seemed very over the top. Her ex was hard believable as he was a mere caricature of the modern ‘artist’.
Clara and Lily’s chapters were aggravating and full of platitudes that made me roll my eyes. Mullen tries hard to make Lily have an artist’s worldview but to me these attempts seemed exaggerated: she tries to interact with Luis by making an obscure art reference, and she things stuff like this:
“That’s what I loved about portraiture—how it captured the way a person’s personality, their past, their secrets, their desires or disappointments, settled into their body, their face.”
Give me a break.
So many of Clara and Lily’s observations and inner monologues were pure cheese. One of them things this of Luis: “[His] personality was buried deep within his layers of silence”.
Speaking of Luis…what was the point in his character? For much of the novel Mullen makes these not so subtle hints that he is not quite ‘right’. He is repeatedly harassed and beaten up while the police stands by and does nothing (I mean, really?) and most people think he is a creep. Why is there this tendency to portray janitors this way? Let alone mute and deaf individuals?

The storyline takes its time to set off. What Clara and Lily do isn’t necessarily an investigation but a series of not always logical/organised attempts to discover where these missing women are.
There are quite a few female characters who said cringy stuff like ‘as a woman’ and things on those lines which…who speaks like that?
With the exception of two men who have very small cameos, all the guys in this book are basically the same: sadistic, predatory, violent, rapists, 100% vile.
The serial killer was the typical fanatic who stars in novels like these.
The way the ending unfolded irritated me. Shit finally hist the fan and then within a few pages its sort of over.
All in all there was a lot I did not like about this novel. Clara and Lily’s voices were pure cringe. The story was too slow and perhaps it would have benefited from being a tad more complex.

The Jane chapters and the portrayal of Atlantic City were the most absorbing aspects of Please See Us. Would I recommend this one? Not so sure…

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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BOOK REVIEWS

RESTORATION HEIGHTS: BOOK REVIEW

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Restoration Heights
by Wil Medearis
★★★✰✰ 3 stars of 5 stars

Restoration Heights is a difficult book to review. On the one hand, I didn’t dislike it, yet, I didn’t make me feel much of anything. The narration is rather cold, which creates a distance between the reader and the characters, and the mystery itself…well it resembled a prolonged meandering from A to B and back again.
The story focuses on Reddick, a thirty-something, white artist, who lives in a historically black Brooklyn neighbourhood. He makes his living as an art handler, working for the people he despises the most: the rich.
The day after he crosses paths with a young drunk woman, he discovers that she is 1) Hannah, the fiancé of the son of one of the wealthiest family in the city and 2) she has gone missing.
Feeling responsible, and seeing that no one else seems worried for her, he undergoes an investigation of his own.

In spite of Reddick’s obsessive search for Hannah, this story didn’t strike me as being a mystery or an amateur detective type of story. Yes, he ‘interviews’ people, he concocts wild scenarios in which Hannah was killed because of this or that…most of Reddick’s friends tell him to drop it but he is stupidly determined to find the truth. The trails he follows were boring and often had little to do with Hannah.
A large part of this novel revolves long conversations/discussions that Reddick has with his ‘friends’. From gentrification, race and class biases, definitions of ‘privilege’ and or the benefits and limitations created by ‘labels’….these could be interesting interactions. Often however, I felt that I was reading a social commentary on New York —and the United States— rather than a piece of fiction. It was almost didactical: person A offers one view, person B offers another, person C agrees with both A and B…it felt contrived at times.

I love novels that have a great sense of place and time but in Restoration Heights these seemed almost overwhelming. Reddick is constantly going on about Restoration Heights —a new housing development— and even before he has any actual evidence he believes that Hannah’s disappearance is connected to this development. The buildings and Reddick’s various surroundings are rendered in a rather methodical way. Yes, we know what the structure of Reddick’s neighbourhood but other places he visits in his ‘investigation’ but they didn’t strike me as vividly as they should have, especially given the page-time the author spends on them. Barbara Vine, one of my favourite authors, who writes a very different sort of crime, breathes life into her buildings/houses. Given that Restoration Heights is narrated in such an unemotional manner I found that both its characters and its location lacked life.

Once I adapted to the impersonal writing style, it was easier for me to keep reading. I can’t say that I was ever invested in the storyline or affected by any of the characters but there were occasional observations (often relating to a painting) that really stood out.
If you can look past a pointless mystery, or if you enjoy using google maps, well, look no further.
Maybe American readers will find the novel’s setting and social commentary more engaging than I did.

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