Stillhouse Lake – Rachel Caine

I have loved everything I’ve read by Rachel Caine, and I can’t figure out why I haven’t read more. I’ll have to. Soon. I just need to clear my calendar and read nothing but Rachel Caine (and Seanan McGuire) for a couple of months.

You know all those tired words and phrases that are typically found in reviews of thriller-type books, like “gripping” and “edge of my seat” and “wow”? They all come into play here. I mean, I don’t know. Looked at objectively and coolly and at a distance from the action, maybe this isn’t a perfect book. But in the midst of the flow of words, with the action (to mix metaphors) galloping along through unknown and dangerous wilds, the finer points of Literature didn’t mean a thing. I’m going with my gut – my poor, roiling, anxious gut.

The story begins with a woman’s discovery that the husband she loves, the father of her children, the other half of her rather complacent American Dream life … is a serial killer. And – not that there’s a good brand of serial killer, but – his crimes are shockingly horrific in ways that I’ll be haunted by at random unexpected moments for a while to come. And, since his … “workshop” has been in the garage attached to their house, police and, worse, popular opinion is that she must have been aware of what he was doing in there – in fact, she must have been complicit. She helped. She must have. How could a woman live mere feet from that (insert less-cliched version of “chamber of horrors” here), sleep next to that man for the whole of their marriage and eat dinner and raise kids and make love and discuss bills with him without knowing what he really was?

But she did live in ignorance the whole time, and had no idea in all the world that such a thing was in any way possible … until an SUV crashes into the garage and reveals the horrors to the world. Because sometimes psychopaths are scary smart, and they can be meticulous at covering their tracks, and her husband – no: ex-husband Mel made sure she was oblivious. But a few years and a court acquittal later, Gina – now named Gwen – is living a life that was unimaginable before that SUV crashed, constantly on the alert and when necessary on the run. Between Mel’s victims’ families and the hordes of internet vigilantes – and, heaven help us all, those wingnuts who are worshipful fans of her ex-husband the serial killer – who just cannot believe she was innocent and ignorant, and Mel’s incarceration on death row isn’t enough – they want blood vengeance, and hers, or her kids’, will do just fine. (Mel’s fans, of course, don’t want to punish her for taking part in the killings. They want her punished for having found concretely damning evidence against him and bringing it to the police.) They’re legion, they’re everywhere, they’re determined, and they get together and pool their information, and every time they seem to get close Gwen has to pick up and recreate her identity and those of her children, and relocate yet again. As the book opens, she has a home by a lake – Stillhouse Lake, surprisingly enough – and it feels like it might possibly be as safe as it is possible to be. And she cautiously sticks her head just a little bit out of her shell.

She regrets it.

What follows is a roller coaster. I don’t mean one of those fun little Coney Island trips where your car goes up and down a few times and you whoop a bit and hop off and go get a hot dog. I mean one of those things that have names indicating they might kill you, that go up and down at angles which shouldn’t be survivable and then do it all backwards and flip you over a few times until the change is shaken out of your pockets until you’re deposited at the end so shaken you hit your knees and think about kissing the ground except you’re afraid you’ll collapse entirely and you won’t be thinking of food for hours. Who can be trusted? How is it possible that anyone found her? Does she have to flee yet again, or is it going to be possible to face it down this time and take the reins of her life back in her own hands?

The only real flaw I could find in the book, and maybe someone can explain to me why it’s not one, is the question of why Gwen doesn’t take her children and leave the country entirely. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK – or perhaps a non-English-speaking country would add a layer of protection; if her source could provide her with all of her new paperwork every time she regenerated (so to speak), surely he could have gotten her a set of passports.

But apart from that question, which nagged at me, I loved this book. I can’t see ever reading it again, as it was not a comfortable or … fun read, in that the suspense was powerful and terrible things happen. But the story was spun out beautifully, the characters were vivid (Mel is frankly terrifying, both in Gwen’s memory (that moment in court …) and in person), and the psychology of having survived horror and continuing to survive its aftermath seemed, to my ignorant mind, dead on. One major point for me in the story’s favor is that nothing (well, almost nothing) that happens to Gwen and her kids is down to anything they have done wrong. I think it would be easy for an author to make, say, one of the kids get tired of the strictures of what their life has become and kick over the traces, opening them all up to attack. Not here, or at least nothing major. The kids are not stupid, and they’re almost as afraid as they should be (Gwen hasn’t told them everything, or they would be every bit as afraid as they should be), and even when they grumble they do what they’re supposed to. It all goes back to the reason they trusted Mel, and loved him, and honestly believed that he had the capacity to love them: it’s hard to distrust everyone all the time. They all make decisions to extend a bit of trust to a tiny handful of people, and the one who deserves it least is a shock. I saw it coming, a little – but that could be just because I was busily and paranoiacally suspecting everyone who was not Gwen or one of her children.

I’m surprised there’s a sequel; this is such a self-contained story that it feels like it doesn’t need one. But, then again, I definitely want to know what happens next.

We always seem to want the hundredth of whatever to be special. This was my hundredth book read this year – and by golly, it filled the bill.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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