New Fiction: Bonfire review
‘Marvel’ actress Krysten Ritter sets high school past on fire with debut thriller
Krysten Ritter: Her fine debut novel features the community of Barrens, where the town’s economic heart – a plastics conglomerate – may also be poisoning its residents.
“Do a few rashes here or there mean we should shut down the biggest employer in town?” All is not well in the aptly named community of Barrens, Indiana, where the town’s economic heart – a plastics conglomerate – may also be poisoning its residents. A decade since Abby Williams fled her miserable upbringing to become a lawyer in Chicago, she returns home as part of an environmental legal team considering litigation against Optimal Plastics.
Local officialdom resents her presence. Everyone from vice-principal Misha, the kind of woman who leaves her infant daughter in a car on a scorching afternoon, to former high-school hunk Brent, to the suspiciously tanned Sheriff Kahn, views Abby’s return as an unwanted attack on a corporation that has fed their town for years. Just who is getting fat from the proceeds is the ostensible plot of Krysten Ritter’s Bonfire.
Running parallel to the main storyline is a compelling back story of high school bullying both past and present. Abby is still recovering from her own school days, where Misha and best friend Kaycee Mitchell controlled a group of girls that made her life hell: “She left a razorblade taped to my homeroom desk with a note saying, ‘Just do it’.” Ritter is excellent on the cruelty of teenage girls out for blood.
Ten years on, the reunion with Misha is painstaking, all politeness and pretence: “I used to dream of her smile – the way, I imagine, bottom-feeding fish must dream of the long dark funnel of a shark’s throat.”
Hysteria and illness
With a narrative that looks back at high school from the seemingly relative safety of the future, there are echoes of Sarah Bannan’s Weightless. The intriguing but underdeveloped subplot of hysteria and illness at the high school also recalls Megan Abbott’s bestseller The Fever.
Bonfire is a brisk, busy thriller that loses the plot at times with the amount of action it packs in. There is the question of “the Game”, invented by the now missing Kaycee Mitchell, and the impact it had on girls from Abby’s school days. That the past is repeated, and made worse in a social media age, is nicely observed as Abby investigates the current high school situation, but the sheer amount of characters from both eras means it’s hard to really care about anyone but Abby.
This is despite the leading language and cliffhangers that end many of the book’s short chapters: “And then there was what happened to Becky Sarinelli. That was even worse.” At times Ritter doesn’t trust the reader, spelling out the significant aspects of her story: “If so, I could use Kaycee’s testimony, especially now that the Davies and the Ioccos are backpedalling.” Elsewhere, interjections frequently appear to further suspense: “Is it a coincidence? Or did something happen to explain how fast and how far they fell?”
In addition to the pollution scandal and the high school nastiness, Abby has to deal with her work team, a corrupt sheriff, a porn store owner with a sick side business, two potential suitors, the question mark hanging over her dead dog Chestnut, her non-existent relationship with a formerly abusive father who is lapsing into dementia, and her penchant for getting blind drunk most evenings. With so much going on, who could blame her?
With its guiding tone and energetic plots, Bonfire is in many respects more suited to a teen market, but Ritter’s careful consideration of her heroine elevates the novel. Known for her roles as Marvel’s Jessica Jones on Netflix, in the cult favourite Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23, and in AMC’s Breaking Bad, Ritter is also the founder of Silent Machine, a production company that aims to highlight complex, female protagonists. This intent comes through admirably in her debut novel as Abby grapples with the abuses she has buried for most of her adult life.
There is little new in a sympathetic, damaged narrator made unreliable by drink, but Abby’s voice captivates from the beginning and sustains throughout. A present-tense narrative further adds to the tempo, as do the sharp asides on everything from law school to other people’s happiness “feeling like an assault”. Being a lawyer is “a little like being a doctor in reverse: you look for the damage and try to grow it”. At law school, Abby learns one thing above all: “How to speak while saying absolutely nothing.”
It is not enough to keep her silent, however, when the evil truth at the centre of the Barrens community hits her “like the hard stun of a wave you’ve been watching get closer”. As Abby digs deeper into the mess, Ritter ramps up the unreliability factor and keeps readers guessing with hairpin twists that shift the blame. Bonfire won’t set the world alight, but it will spark enough interest for fans of fast-paced thrillers.