Reviewed by Jowana Bueser
A GUIDE FOR MURDERED CHILDREN
By Sarah Sparrow
400 pp. Blue Rider Press.
Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens created the Massacre of Innocents; taking inspiration from the biblical tale of King Herod and his barbaric order of killing babies to prevent the prophesied Christ to ascend the throne. True to his Baroque form, Rubens characterized the horrors of the massacre with compelling detail and dramatic flair. The gamut of emotions ran from madness to resignation, from callousness to compassion, and from hope to desperation. These same emotions fueled the characters in A Guide for Murdered Children, a paranormal thriller from Sarah Sparrow. The premise is original as it is intriguing: the souls of murdered children take residence in adult bodies to seek justice. However, the concept, while ripe for parallelisms and symbolisms, could crumble in the hands of lesser mortals. Thus, it is the task of the author to present a gripping crime procedural, build a graspable supernatural lore, and capture grounded comparisons to reality.
In a small cul-de-sac in Saggerty Falls, Michigan, siblings Troy and Maya rode their bicycles like they do on any normal day. But on one particular day, they met a monster, disappeared, and left their parents broken. Detective Willow Millard Wylde used to live in the same cul-de-sac, until he decided to squander his brilliant career and stable marriage. Upon completing rehabilitation, he is determined to make the most of his second chance at life. Battered but optimistic, he returns to Saggerty Falls to pick up the fragments Troy and Maya left and bring closure to fractured hearts. Most crimes are unspeakable but none more so than the murder of a child. One line in the book perfectly sums it up, “Is there a hell more specific than the chaos following the disappearance of a child?” The decision to choose the murder of siblings in a close neighborhood guarantees emotional trauma and personal drama other forms of crime cannot afford. The non-linear narration and the almost haphazard introduction of characters are but meticulous plot construction. Certain critical details are hidden beneath torrents of description and pop cultural references that materialize at surprising moments. The author made judicious choices in establishing the premise and manipulating the plot leading to a pleasing end.
Incorporating supernatural elements in an established genre like crime fiction requires deft craftsmanship. Careful construction of rules is required to ensure comprehensible paranormal rules. The author developed simple but elegant concepts like “tenants”, “porters”, and “moment of balance” to illustrate the process of dead children inhabiting bodies to seek justice and retribution. The procedure matters a lot because the title itself promises a guide for murdered children. Natural progression dictates something goes amiss in the guide to stir the plot. The moment things go, to quote the book, “haywire” is when the story truly picks up. You get caught up in the mystery and start asking questions each time a chapter ends in a cliffhanger. Cleverly, some of the characters are also clueless with their proximity to the paranormal and end up figuring their mysteries along with the readers. On the surface, some of the characters seem like boilerplate crime fiction staples but they are afforded with arcs and three-dimensionality. Keeping the supernatural simple enough to understand permits the author to immerse deeper into the crime in question and the personal tragedies of the main characters. But this does not mean it lacks horror because the simmering dread throughout the pages lingers in the imagination.
Horror is simply drama with supernatural elements. The paranormal punctuates the point of the story. Surprisingly, the author made the point in the first chapter. Justice provides closure but closure is not about feeling good. Justice is a return to balance or as the guide puts it, a moment of balance. A Guide for Murdered Children is a treatise on justice – its importance, its process, its consequences, and its aftermath. Each character is related to the case in contrasting degrees and their process of seeking closure highlights the different shades of justice. The truth is, justice is not a one-size-fits-all affair because humans tend to customize their process of acceptance.
The cover design of A Guide for Murdered Children belies its depth: pink salmon mimicry of mimeographed stapled brochure, punctured with glitter-glued stars and unicorn, printed in criminal Comic Sans, and scribbled underneath is “Sarah Sparrow”. A quick trip to Google will yield little to no results of Sarah Sparrow. The book assures readers that Sparrow is a “pseudonym for a distinguished award-winning novelist”. There are specific reasons authors choose to publish under a different name. In the case of an established author, the commonplace reason is to negate comparisons with their past works. Familiarity not only breeds contempt but also stereotypes. A Guide for Murdered Children requires a confident author to sail through its intricacies. Fortunately, our mysterious sparrow is up to the task.
A Guide for Murdered Children by Sarah Sparrow is available at Fully Booked stores and Fully Booked Online.
Jowana applied as a research assistant for Hogwarts but was rejected because her natural sarcasm is considered a form of dark arts. She has since harnessed her powers working as a social media manager for almost a decade. Books keep her calm from the madness and the sameness of life. You can find her on Twitter @jowana.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]