Nothing if not ambitious, the first standalone novel from Steph Cha is a fictional treatment of the 1991 shooting of African-American schoolgirl Latasha Harlins by Korean-born store-owner Soon Ja Du. Ms Du suspected the 15-year-old of shoplifting, and her lenient treatment by the court, which caused tension between the two communities, is often cited as one of the causes of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. In Your House Will Pay (Faber & Faber, £12.99), the action moves between 1991, when black teenager Ava Matthews is killed after an altercation in a Korean convenience store, and 2019, when the wounding of Grace Park’s mother in a drive-by shooting leads to a shocking revelation about her past. Seen through the eyes of 27-year-old Grace and Ava’s ex-convict brother Shawn, who is trying to put his past behind him,
this is a nuanced and convincing portrait of two communities at loggerheads, and Cha never shies away from moral ambiguity as she explores cultural burdens, anger, and unintended consequences.
The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda (translated from Japanese by Alison Watts, Bitter Lemon Press, £8.99) also deals with the aftermath of a crime: here, it’s the poisoning of 17 people, including children, during a family party in the 1970s. The case is closed when the delivery man who brought the cyanide-laced alcohol and soft drinks to the house commits suicide, leaving an apparently incriminating note, but Inspector Teru is convinced that he knows the identity of the real culprit. So, apparently, does neighbor Makiko Saiga, who writes a bestselling book about the case, though the ‘clues’ in her narrative are somewhat oblique… We hear from these two, and various others, including the sole surviving member of the Aosawa family, mysterious Hisako, thirty years after the murder. Tantalising as a scene glimpsed through a half-open door, this utterly immersive puzzler in which nothing is entirely cut and dried is well worth the read.
The past also has a devastating impact on the present in Rebecca Wait’s latest novel, Our Fathers (riverrun, £14.99). Tom Baird returns to the remote Scottish island of his birth, where, over twenty years earlier, his father John shot his mother Katrina, brother and baby sister before turning the gun on himself. Tom, who was eight at the time, survived by hiding in a wardrobe and lived with his uncle Malcolm until he was old enough to leave. Now, wracked with the guilt of the survivor and trapped by the past, he’s looking for answers. Malcolm wants to help, but he is weighed down by his own feelings of guilt for not preventing the massacre; rendered inarticulate by an act of such horrific and inexplicable violence, the two men struggle to communicate. A second narrative strand, written from Katrina’s point of view, shows how she came to marry John, the corrosive nature of their relationship, and the inevitability – ‘Of course he would kill her’ – of its ending. Wait wisely avoids the temptation of melodrama to create an astonishingly powerful story of toxic masculinity, regret and the possibility of redemption.
A far cry from its London namesake, the district of Kensington in Philadelphia – the setting for Liz Moore’s Long Bright River (Hutchinson, £12.99) – is the largest market for narcotics on America’s east coast. For police officer and single mother Mickey Fitzpatrick, it’s not only her beat, but the place where her sister, Kacey, turns tricks in order to fund her addiction. A time-slip narrative details how drugs have affected Mickey’s life before – they killed her mother, and her dad, long disappeared, is presumed dead – and how, in the present day, a serial killer appears to be targeting sex workers… Although this police-procedural-meets-family-drama is not about the opioid crisis per se, it paints a stark picture of the devastation caused by drug abuse. As Mickey realizes the first time that Kacey – then aged 16 – is Narcanned back to life after an overdose: ‘None of them want to be saved. They all want to sink backward toward the earth again, to be swallowed by the ground, to keep sleeping.’ After a mostly slow pace, the book’s conclusion feels overly hasty, but strong characters and some truly evocative writing more than make up for it.
The first time we meet the family at the centre of Doug Johnstone’s new series, they are busy burning the body of patriarch Jim, according to his wishes, on a makeshift pyre in their Edinburgh back garden. The Skelfs are funeral directors – hence their ability to perform DIY cremations – with a sideline in private investigating, and in A Dark Matter (Orenda Books, £8.99), the three generations of women put their experience to good use, dealing with the disappearance of granddaughter Hannah’s best friend and the discovery of Jim’s mysterious payments to the wife of a former employee as well as a steady stream of cadavers and a case of adultery that turns out to be anything but straightforward. This enjoyable mystery is also a touching and often funny portrayal of grief, as the three tough but tender main characters pick up the pieces and carry on: more, please.
© Laura Wilson, 2020