Published by William Morrow ISBN 978-0-06-228324-5
Trade paperbacks, $14.99, 368 pages
What drew me to Emily Arsenault's book was that it revolved around an adult brother-sister relationship. That's not something you see all that frequently; there are many books with sisters' stories- Lisa See's Shanghai Girls, John Searles' Help For The Haunted and Louisa May Alcott's classic Little Women to name a few- but stories featuring brother-sister relationships are not as numerous.
Arsenault's book pulled me in from it's opening line: "What are you supposed to do on the second night your brother is in jail on a murder charge?" Like Searles' brilliant novel, What Strange Creatures successfully combines a murder mystery with a family character study that makes your heart ache for the people involved.
Theresa Battles is a thirty-something divorced woman who has been working for seven long years on her doctoral thesis about Margery Kempe, who is credited with writing the first autobiography in the English language. Kempe was a religious pilgrim, who had visions and believed that Jesus spoke to her. She was not a popular woman in her community, as her wailing and crying disturbed the neighbors.
Theresa's brother Jeff is one year older than her and he's "supposed to be some kind of genius." Theresa believes that "while Jeff has many enviable skills- creativity, origami skill, loyalty, and superfast metabolism", she has never thought him a genius.
Jeff drove a school bus for awhile, and then an ice cream truck. Now he was unemployed and spent his days drinking and his nights at Theresa's, hoping she has leftover takeout in her fridge. He finally has a girlfriend, Kim, who leaves home to visit her sister one weekend and never returns.
Kim's body is found in a wooded area. A screwdriver with her blood on it is found in Jeff's car trunk and he is arrested for her murder. Theresa doesn't believe her brother is capable of killing Kim, and sets out to find the real murderer.
Jeff seems to to think there is nothing he can do to help his situation. He lets things happen to him, instead of making things happen for him. Their last name "Battles" is ironic here; Jeff does nothing to fight for himself. He just wallows in his defeatist attitude about his life.
Theresa says of their family dynamic:
"Driving home, I considered the concept of enabler. It was something I'd been thinking about a lot lately. I never meant to be one, you see. I've noticed there is little sympathy out there for enablers. Not that there should be a great deal, but this is something I wish people understood: It's a role that sneaks up on you."and
"If we were a family that talked directly about feelings or worries or troubling behaviors or anything at all, really, this would perhaps have been when we talked about it. But we don't, so we didn't. That's how it sneaks up on you, see?"
When Jeff is arrested, Theresa says "We're used to disappointment." They believe their family motto should be "We're Battles. What chance did we have?" Their propensity to believe that bad things will happen to them is maddening and sad. We never discover where exactly this attitude comes from, and I was pleased not to find some deep, dark secret behind it. They are the way they are, and though their divorced parents can be difficult to deal with, they are no more difficult than anybody else's parents.
They mystery of who killed Kim is satisfying and a careful reader may pick up on clues to the conclusion, although there is no shortage of suspects. Theresa gets herself into some tight spots trying to save her brother, and the sense of dread and panic builds as the story goes along.
The title What Strange Creatures comes from a Jane Austen quote in Mansfield Park- "What strange creatures brothers are!" This is an astute, sharp psychological mystery that captured me from the opening line and didn't let go until the very end. The brother-sister dynamic is so heartfelt and realistic, I felt like I probably knew Jeff and Theresa Battles somewhere along the way.
rating 5 of 5
Emily Arsenault's website is here.
My review of John Searles' Help For The Haunted is here.
Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on Emily Arsenault's tour. The rest of Emily's stops are here.
Emily’s Tour Stops
Tuesday, July 22nd: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Wednesday, July 23rd: Booksie’s Blog
Thursday, July 24th: Kritters Ramblings
Monday, July 28th: From the TBR Pile
Tuesday, July 29th: BoundbyWords
Wednesday, July 30th: Book-alicious Mama
Thursday, July 31st: Vox Libris
Monday, August 4th: bookchickdi
Wednesday, August 6th: Sara’s Organized Chaos
Thursday, August 7th: Book of Secrets