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Penance by Eliza Clark - Review

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

I read Boy Parts by Eliza Clark back in 2020 and absolutely loved it, so when I saw she had a new book out I knew I wanted to read it soon. I bought this hardback copy from my friend Vicky, who has a bookshop and distro called Pen Fight. I would highly recommend buying stuff from her because you're supporting a small business if you do! This arrived just a couple of weeks ago and I very quickly picked it up as I've read mixed reviews, especially from people who loved Boy Parts. 

I will say that it's entirely different - the author can obviously move herself through genres because this is a good book. I will be interested in what she does next. I did like this, but it's with a few caveats - but I'm not sure if that's what the author intended. It's a weird one. I'm passing this on to my friend Sam because I would like her input! 

So the book is like a book within a book. A horrific crime occurred in a place between Whitby and Scarborough (places I'm very familiar with, being from West Yorkshire) called Crow-on-Sea, and a man called Alec Z Garelli has decided to write a book about the case. He is a journalist disgraced because he was involved in phone hacking, and he's written previous books about horrific crimes (think Fred and Rose West type of crime). His daughter took her own life some time prior to his writing this book, and obviously this has affected him deeply. You do get to know him as a person even though generally in books like his the author is silent and irrelevant. I didn't like him at all - but I think that's very much the point! 

So the crime. A sixteen year old called Joni Wilson was tortured and then set alight in a beach hut on the seafront. She was left for dead but managed to make her way to a local hotel where the receptionist phoned an ambulance. She was horrifically burned, lost consciousness,  and never woke up. She died three days later. Four girls were arrested very soon; one was able to establish that she wasn't there, and the other three stood trial for bringing about Joni's death. Two of them are now out of prison and thanks to a judge waiving their right to anonymity (because of their ages), have new identities. 

The girls were Angelica, Dolly, and Violet, and the girl who had an alibi was Jayde. The book concentrates firstly Joni, then each of the others in turn. 

I feel like through looking at each of the girls in turn Alec was trying to get the reader of his book (which is by extension the reader of the whole book ie me) to sympathise with each of them. This worked for me for each of them except with Dolly, who just comes off as a psychopath with few redeeming features. Joni's mum talks to Alec and tells him that she was bullied as a little girl, about how she didn't grow up maybe as fast as some others, and how she was victimised in particular by Angelica. Angelica comes across as a typical mean girl and I felt really sorry for Joni. 

Then in Angelica's part we do learn stuff about her which did make me sympathise a little bit. Her friend Aleesha was killed on a school trip in Year 6 at a water park in the town which obviously affected Angelica massively. Her dad is notorious in the town as a huge Brexit supporter (think Nigel Farage) and Joni's death happened on the night of the Brexit vote. I still think Angelica was a terrible person and was a huge catalyst in Joni's death because it seemed like she just wouldn't leave the girl alone. 

Next is Violet. She and Joni had been friends in primary school but had drifted apart. Violet is a loner and massively into Tumblr fandoms, mostly true crime. She had become somewhat Tumblr famous for writing some posts about the history of Crow-on-Sea. It had had some witch stuff and so on, which Violet wrote about. I was on Tumblr myself for years - although as a much older adult - so I did like some of this stuff because I know that fandom on Tumblr was just insane. She had had some huge traumas when she was a kid which made it make sense as to why she was a bit of a dark teenager. I feel like in real life Violet would have survived her teenage years intact and made it as a successful adult had she not got caught up in this crime. That's not to exonerate her but she wasn't as involved as Dolly and Angelica. I empathised with Violet a lot I think. We all do stupid shit as teenagers and think we're being really edgy. Violet's just went further than most of us. 

Then there's Jayde, who was Dolly's girlfriend and who had left the group earlier in the night because she was annoyed. She was one of the only openly gay people in the whole area and was from a notorious family, both of which made her stand out. I liked Jayde - she really seemed to just be living her life and got involved with Dolly and just got strung along. Dolly really comes across terribly, even though she also has things that have happened in her past which make you feel sorry for her. 

Phew sorry this is a long review! I will leave it here except for this:

I was waiting for a huge twist at the end of the book and it didn't materialise. There's one twist with how Alec has got some of his information, but it felt like it was glossed over. I feel like there were really good parts of the book but bits that just didn't add up for me. There were also some editing errors and I couldn't decide if these were Alec's errors, or Eliza's. Does that make sense? But they meant that some parts jarred and took me out of the whole narrative. I'm giving this three and a half out of five; it was compelling and I did want to read it, but I didn't feel like it completely landed. 

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