The Things She’s Seen, Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina (Knopf 978-1-9848-4937-3, $17.99, 208pp, hc) May 2019.
First, a non-spoiler plot point about The Things She’s Seen: the primary narrator, 16-year-old Beth, is dead. Readers learn this in the first pages, and the reality of Beth’s deadness grounds the narrative. Beth can see (and hear) things because she is a ghost, while the fact that her father can clearly see her is a symbol of his inability to move on from his loss. But here is an even more important plot point about The Things She’s Seen: Beth’s death is not what this book is about and, in fact, the way she died is barely part of the story at all.
So banish all those comparisons to The Lovely Bones from your head right now, okay?
Beth’s father is an Australian police detective who has been dispatched to a small town to oversee an unnatural death investigation. A children’s home has burned down and, while all the children escaped, a badly burned body was found and the school’s director and nurse (both men) are unaccounted for. There is a witness to the fire, a young teen runaway, who might know something. The local police have dismissed her, but upon meeting the enigmatic Isabel Catching, the visiting detective finds her difficult to ignore. Father and daughter dive deep into Catching’s surreal story of near drowning, pursuit, and kidnapping. It might be a convoluted allegory, a dark fairy tale that she has crafted to mask a horrific experience, or Catching might be a delusional liar. A good police detective will get to the truth, and Beth’s father is very good at his job. The problem is that he is also very sad and she isn’t sure he can stay the course, even with her there to help.
The book unfolds as a police procedural as Beth and her father delve into the school’s history. Isabel Catching’s story unwinds over several visits and Beth becomes more transfixed by what the mysterious teen shares. Australia’s disturbing history of colonization comes to light, especially when a local cold case concerning a long missing teen that has a connection to the recent fire comes to light. Beth, whose mother was Aboriginal, becomes increasingly certain that there is more here than just an accident, as does her father, who cannot ignore the ugly truths he is discovering.
“If a white girl had gone missing like that, just vanished on her way home from school” – he shook his head in disgust – “there’d have been an outcry. It would have been on the news, in the papers, something everyone talked about on the street. Instead the only people speaking for Sarah – her family, her friend – were ignored.” His mouth twisted…. “No one was paying attention.”
As the crime unfolds and Beth and her father doggedly follow the clues, a tragedy is revealed far beyond the recent fire. Catching’s tale takes on increasing urgency and Beth, who is torn between staying with her father and moving on to where her mother awaits, finally forces herself to choose. At this point the authors, siblings Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina, dip into their own Aboriginal heritage and the novel’s paranormal aspects merge with magic realism. It’s an excellent twist and one that readers will wholeheartedly embrace, as it ties all the book’s questions together in perfect conclusion.
The Things She’s Seen packs a massive punch; it’s the kind of novel that stays with you and reaffirms just how significant teen literature can be.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the May 2019 issue of Locus.
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