Penance by Eliza Clark: book review

Penance by Eliza Clark

Overview: In a small English sea town, three girls set their schoolmate on fire. That is both what this book is about and very much not what it's about. Penance by Eliza Clark is the story of a true crime book by the same name by a fictional author that has become embroiled in controversy after its publication. The fictional writer has taken massive liberties, written prose inferring the girls' thoughts and feelings, stolen therapy writing, and taken advantage of the friends and family members he's interviewed. Through the course of the book, you read his true crime book with the addition of prefaces, interviews with the author after the publication, and more. It is truly a meta reading experience. Overall: 4.5

Characters: 4.5 Alec Z. Carelli is our narrator and the author of Penance within the book. He's middle aged, self absorbed, and set on saving his career in journalism and true crime after two flop books and getting cancelled on Twitter. He's a bit of a ridiculous figure, but he does make for an interesting guide through the novel. It's rare to have the author of a book that is not the author of the book but also is. Regardless, Clark pulls it off, and in a way, some of the less successful writing just feels in keeping with Carelli's style. He's there to take the fall and to spark a conversation about true crime. 

The girls are each given their own section in the novel (as well as one girl who was falsely accused). There's a ton of background provided on the murderers as well as the victim because Carelli includes extensive interviews around the girls. You get a very clear picture of who these people are through secondhand accounts, and it's fascinating to see fictional characters constructed this way. I won't tell you about them in detail because that's why you read the book, but they are all fascinating. 

Plot: 4.5 This is a gripping book. I stayed up way too late reading it most nights because I didn't want to put it down. It's written in a very reader-friendly style, and I found that I was reading it faster because much of the book unfolds in narrations of interviews with various subjects and simply relaying facts – like a nonfiction book. There isn't much traditional prose to speak of, and that was really fun. You find out the broad details of the murder upfront, and then the vast majority of the rest of the book is learning about all the histories and interpersonal dramas and what lead up to the murder. The actual crime is a very minimal part of the book, which I really appreciated. 

I feel like it's worth noting that the book isn't scary, which I feared. I listened to true crime podcasts for a year or two when it was really trendy, but I had to totally cut myself off when I moved out on my own. I was scared this book would be distressing like those podcasts, but it really wasn't. The fictional crime is horrible, but it's not dwelled on or graphically described in the book, seemingly on purpose. Also, the crime is so specific and personal that it didn't spike my anxiety in that "this crime could happen to anyone" way. The point of the book is to dissect true crime culture and examine it through the lens of a fictional book on the subject and the impact that it has, and in that, it most definitely succeeds. It also moves the book away from the worst parts of the genre since its entire motivation is working as a critique of the industry. 

Writing: 4.5 Eliza Clark is a gifted writer for being able to manage so many layers successfully. It's a book that could've toppled over at any point, but Clark has such a firm grip on every aspect that you just melt into the story and the world and this wild author as well as the lives of the girls. I didn't enjoy the prose sections where Carelli essentially writes fan fiction of the girls lives that ended up at the end of basically every section. They're just stilted and awkward and the regular book format is much more fun to read, but I don't feel like I can fault Clark for this. These short stories add to the sketchy things Carelli did in the book, so they serve a narrative purpose, and I don't even know if Clark herself is responsible for them just being meh because she's making a point and writing as Carelli. This has to be the weirdest review I've ever written, but this is probably the most unique book I've read this year, so I guess it's fitting. Even though I've heard Boy Parts is quite scary, I am intrigued to read more of her work.

More on Reading, Writing, and Me:

Under the Influence review

Rouge review

The Getaway List review

The Last Thing He Told Me review


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