February 5, 2012, the body of twenty-five-year-old journalist, Alice Salmon, is pulled from the river near her old university. Whether her death is an accident, suicide or something more sinister remains to be seen, yet it becomes increasingly clear that Alice was not the person most believed her to be and that many who knew her had a reason to want her dead.
The truth about Alice’s death is pieced together in fragments. One of her former professors, anthropologist, Jeremy Cooke, is particularly affected by her passing. He is dying of cancer and struggling to come to terms with his mortality and how he will be remembered, and so embarks on a final research project: to collate Alice’s digital footprint. Ostensibly, his objective is unsentimental. He posits that each of us:
…leaves a trail, an imprint, a mark. Our mark. Might it be possible … to reconstruct a life out of such fragments? To reassemble a person, piece them back together from such soluble shards?
Alice, born in 1986, came of age with the Internet, and thus, according to Cooke:
…She was perfect for my purposes on so many levels. Not just because of how she died, more because of when she lived. The way we communicate has changed more in the past twenty-five years—in one lifetime—than it did in the previous thousand. The Internet has rewritten the rulebook. Her generation has seen that change, has been that change.
And so he sets out to determine not only how she died, but how she lived:
I wanted to see how much of that dear, beautiful girl was left behind, what remained. After all, it wasn’t until relatively recently … that, unless you were a nobleman or a royal, your life and death would pass unrecorded. Beyond your immediate family and perhaps a small peer group, unnoticed. You’d be remembered briefly by those surviving you, but beyond that, nothing.
However, Cooke’s research forces him to examine his relationship with Alice and his presumptions about who was and the role he played in shaping both her life and death.
What She Left is a tightly-woven thriller, but more than that, it’s a story about the things we leave behind and a meditation on the ways in which we document our lives and the narratives we craft in doing so. The story is a modern epistolary, narrated through handwritten letters and diary entries but also digital comms: emails, blog posts, tweets, forum comments and text messages.
Epistolary narratives can feel gimmicky, especially contemporary ones where it can seem like the author is making a desperate play to appear on trend by having their characters share their story via snapchats or whatever. However, when done well, it can be a useful way for the author to fragment a narrative, withhold information and, in doing so, build tension, making it an ideal style for thrillers. In the case of What She Left, it also works to support Richmond’s exploration of how much can be learned about a person from their digital footprint and the way memory and remembrance have been radically reshaped in the early twenty-first century. That said, the execution is somewhat lacking. I found many of the communications in What She Left to be contrived. For example, Cooke’s letters contain large slabs of dialogue and pages-long recollections of single scenarios—if not bookended by (perfunctory) greetings, they would read as regular prose. Similarly, Alice’s ex-boyfriend makes extensive ‘notes’ in fluent prose about their relationship and her best friend pens lengthy, intimate blog posts exclusively about their friendship and her life after Alice’s death. It’s all a little too convenient. Too neat.
But while it was occasionally difficult to suspend my disbelief, I really enjoyed What She Left. It’s exactly my kind of thriller—suspenceful without the author resorting to shock revelations and unnecessarily convoluted plot twists. The characters are complex and believable, and while I didn’t necessarily like most of them (especially Cooke, such a creeper), I was invested in them, particularly Alice. I loved how ordinary she was and yet, how extraordinary she appears and how large she dwells in the lives of those who knew her.
I binge read this one in a couple of days (which is super quick for me), and highly recommend it to anyone looking for a smart and quietly compelling literary thriller.
Thank you to Simon & Shuster for providing a copy of What She Left in exchange for an honest review.
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