Don’t Breathe a Word – Jennifer McMahon
This was my first brush with McMahon; I picked this book up off the library’s ‘recently returned’ shelf on a whim.
The cover is creepy – one bug-eyed child with the edges of her face blurred – and let me assure you, the text is equally creepy.
The story is based on a simple and not particularly original premise: that of a lost little girl. Little Lisa went missing in the woods, possibly into the world of fairies, and her family has never quite been the same since. Fast forward to today, and Phoebe is dating Sam, Lisa’s younger brother, when mysterious overtures are made to them from someone claiming to be Lisa returned to the human world.
The narrative is linear, but divided between two timelines – that of the present, in which Phoebe and Sam race to uncover just what the hell is going on – and that of the summer leading up to Lisa’s disappearance. Both storylines gallop along. McMahon’s pacing is perfect and masterful. I dare you to try and put this book down. In the past, secrets are hinted at, as we learn that Sam and Lisa’s apparently lovely rural childhood was perhaps not so serene as it appeared to outsiders. In the current, Sam and Phoebe are tormented by somebody playing games with them – could it really be Teilo, the king of the fairies? Or is there a more reasonable, sane explanation for the mindf***s that are happening…the mysterious characters showing up, the break-ins, the notes?
A particularly interesting aspect, I thought, was the fact protagonist Phoebe was in a relationship with a dude 10 years younger, from a different social and intellectual class. I kind of thought that was going somewhere, and it could – but McMahon, despite making more than a few references to this, chose not to explore that path any further.
Toward the third section of the book, it starts to unravel a little. Not just in terms of the mystery, but in terms of McMahon’s writing. It’s a little rushed (thankfully, it wasn’t quite The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake) and while the ending itself, I think, was a more than valid way to go, it certainly felt that the author ran out of steam and bashed out the final chapters without much thought.
Nonetheless, a full four stars from me. Don’t Breathe a Word is truly haunting, and best of all, while it deals with the fantastic it’s very much grounded in reality.