Reviewed by Alyson Baker
In the far south a young girl goes missing, lost without trace in the wilderness beyond her remote family cottage. A year later her father disappears in the same place. Then nothing. At all. Eventually the years grow over the grief, wearing away the questions. Life flows past the forgotten tragedy. Until Finn moves into the abandoned home, looking for a fresh start.
A place to heal himself far from his old problems. But rebuilding life is complicated by chance encounters and odd occurrences leaving Finn with the growing suspicion that the people here are harboring a terrible secret. Suspicion turns to obsession the deeper Finn digs while also facing steadily escalating dangers in the here-and-now. Soon Finn's own journey of recovery becomes inextricably linked with his need to unravel the mystery. Past and present finally collide when Finn starts to learn the truth about this place and himself. Now he must choose between exoneration and condemnation, justice and vengeance.
Novels can get your adrenaline pumping, engage your head or your heart, or take you to other worlds. Dead Lemons to a degree does all four of these. The narrator is a paraplegic and we first meet him hanging upside down off a cliff, with his wheelchair and one leg snagged on rocks. The story goes back through time to explain his predicament, interspersed with updates on the current situation. The flashbacks often end with more (metaphorical this time) cliff hangers and many of the situations are genuinely scary – so there is plenty to get your adrenaline going.
(Before continuing I will get the one whacky thing I didn’t like about this novel out of the way – the narrator is the author – i.e. Finn Bell, but the narrator is also the main protagonist. Sometimes an authorial voice will place themselves in a scene of a book – but to make yourself the main character in a gruesome thriller is just weird!)
Finn (character) has fled to the south of the South Island to a remote cottage to escape his life (and possibly end it) after a disastrous bout of ennui that led to drink that led to a car crash that put him in a wheelchair. There is much about his discovering options in the far South to touch your heart – plus the story is at times as creepy as Mo Hayder at her creepiest – so the heart thumping horror element is there too. Then Finn’s working through his demons with a 70 something therapist engages your brain as weighty matters of life are discussed. And within the thriller narrative is the question of whether you should act to right a wrong (to make yourself feel good) or leave a wrong well alone (which might make you feel bad but will protect those you love).
Finn’s cottage is charming and full of old history – plus is as far South as you can get on mainland NZ – so we are in a different place with local history thrown in. And in this location Finn is emotionally and physically very ‘down’. But he soon discovers his historical cottage has witnessed a more recent and tragic sequence of events – and that both the ancient and recent history of the place involves a very scary family who live on the adjacent farm. So, at his lowest ebb Finn finds purpose: in his therapist-assigned homework, his intrigue with the tragedy of a missing girl and her father, his new-found friends and his new found sport – Murderball. All these are great elements for a novel and for most of the book Bell (author) plots well and I was thoroughly engaged.
I would have liked more Murderball, and there are some oddities – the son of one of the characters for some reason hasn’t started school at age 8? There are other snippets that ‘ping’ oddly as you read them but they are explained in the final reveal. And this is the weakest part of the book – the denouement – I found it out of balance with the main part of the book and narrator-heavy. Also when you do horrible things to victims I think they deserve respect and focus – and I didn’t think one of the main victims was granted these.
But for most of this book I was transported, moved, engaged and thrilled!
Alyson Baker is a crime-loving librarian in Nelson. This review first appeared on her blog, which you can check out here.