For a psychological thriller, Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell is different enough to help it stand out in an increasingly crowded genre. What appealed to me about it in particular is that its about the two survivors of a relatively short-term crime, who tell their stories in alternating chapters throughout the book, but we first meet up with them years after the event when they’ve forged their own lives as adults. So we also get to look at people’s memories and recall of a shared event and the similarity and more noticeable disparity between those.
Lois and Carly-May were just twelve when they were abducted by a stranger and imprisoned in a cabin in the woods for two months.
That summer, under the watchful gaze of their kidnapper, they formed a bond that would never be broken.
Decades later, both women have new lives and identities. But the events of that summer are about to come back with a vengeance.
Lois and Carly-May must face the truth about their secret, shared past…
What really happened in the woods that summer?
A cabin in the woods might not sound that innovative but one of the things I enjoyed about her novel is the way in which Maggie Mitchell takes the recognisable and familiar from such a story and puts her own spin on that. It’s interesting to see what she does with the cabin and how she uses that space and the surrounding woodland and makes it work for her story. She also introduces literary references such as Robert Browning’s poem Porphyria’s Lover, Bluebeard and murder-mystery novels, and shows the changes brought about when the story is being translated to a different media. All of these go to add to the depth of Pretty Is and make it a rewarding and multi-faceted read.
It’s the characters of the two girls, Lois and Carly-May, now grown women, which are unsurprisingly of most interest. We get to see what they were like before the crime took place, during (seen here in flashback which means you have to question the accuracy and validity of the memories but also the objectivity). The dynamic between both girls and the girls (both together and individually) and their captor make for compulsive reading. Finally, we get to see the aftermath from a distance of many years when events force them to revisit the past and bring them back into each other’s lives. Lois and Carly-May took on more significance in the book for me than their captor did. In fact, I never felt as if I understood his motivation properly or that he emerged from the shade of that forest. There’s also a secondary plot with one of the women’s students which felt more of a distraction to the main story than it should have, although I could appreciate why it was there.
Pretty Is is most interesting to me as a psychological thriller because I read it for what it tells me about the survivor(s) of crimes: their story after the event isn’t one we often get to hear. We may hear about them being found and then, months later, some news about the trial, but it’s rare to hear any more than that or for there to be any follow-up pieces in the press unless the survivor writes a book. And doesn’t everyone wonder (however fleetingly) how someone goes back to their everyday life after coming out of whatever traumatic event they’ve experienced? How do you put it behind you? Do you put it behind you? How do you behave now towards other people? Are all your future moves and interactions now different because of what’s happened to you? Does your life take the same course it would have done or veer off in an entirely different direction? Pretty Is looks at this throughout the novel and you get a great deal of opportunity to consider these questions, something which for me was much more satisfying than any denouement when it came.
It’s this focus on the impact a crime has on any survivor which is made all the more devastating by Maggie Mitchell limiting the length of the abduction to two months. It’s impossible not to be struck by the devastating effect which those two months has on these girls, even now all these years later as grown women, and that’s when you understand that they left a part of themselves behind in that wood all those years before they will never get back. It’s forever missing even though they were saved in our eyes, and able to pick up their lives again. Like some gingerbread crumbs missing from a trail left on the way into the woods, it seems insignificant but the loss, and damage that causes, go much deeper than we might care to imagine. Which all goes to make Pretty Is the pretty unsettling but compulsive read that it is.
Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell is published by Orion in paperback and hardback and as an ebook and audiobook. It’s available from Amazon UK, Audible UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop) and Waterstones. You can find Maggie Mitchell on Twitter. I received a review copy of the book through NetGalley but have since bought the trade paperback of Pretty Is which has a very different cover. I bought a mass market paperback copy (cover as above) for the giveaway below.
Leave a comment below together with a valid email address so I can contact you, if you’d like to be included in the draw to win a paperback of Pretty Is.