Frank Dubois is dead, his body crumpled at the bottom of the stairs in his home. His wife, Tanya, is the only other person in the house at the time, but she’s adamant she had nothing to do with it:
I don’t have an alibi, so you’ll have to take my word for it. I was taking a shower when Frank died. As far as I could tell, he fell down the staircase all on his own. He had been suffering from vertigo lately. Convenient, I know. And I doubt he mentioned it to anyone. If I had waited for the police and told them the truth, maybe life could have continued as normal. Minus Frank.
Instead, Tanya hits the road. She withdraws a wad of cash, changes her appearance and trades her husband’s Chevy Silverado for a Buick Regal. Then she calls a guy she knows to see about getting herself a new name. If she didn’t kill her husband, she sure seems guilty of something.
The dive bars and cheap motels that litter America’s highways appear as havens for those with something to hide, and it’s not long before Tanya meets Blue, a fellow woman on the run. Blue claims she’s searching for a new identity to give her abusive husband the slip, and the two women strike a deal to swap names and part ways. However, it’s not long before Tanya realises that Blue is not the woman she claims to be, and her name comes with troubles of its own. Meanwhile, Blue shows up in Tanya’s hometown and starts dredging up the secrets Tanya thought she’d buried for good.
The Passenger is a fast-paced thrill ride across America, in which the stakes are high and the unexpected lurks beyond every corner.
Lisa Lutz is best known for her ‘Spellman’ series, which is described by the publisher as ‘comedic crime’. The Passenger is her first thriller, and I have to say, she’s done a bang-up job of it.
It’s a perfect ‘weekender’, the kind of book that grips you on the first page and refuses to ease up on the tension until the story’s done. ‘Tanya’, who (it becomes clear early on) is not really Tanya at all, is an engaging narrator: admirable, if not particularly likeable, at least at first. She’s a woman ready and willing to do the necessary thing, but she’s not without a conscience. As the story progresses and she shucks identity after identity, the reader begins to build a picture of who this woman really is, and she’s a far cry from the cold, pragmatic person we meet looking down on her husband’s corpse on page one.
In fact, the thing I enjoyed most about The Passenger is the way Lutz uses her narrative to explore the idea of identity and to challenge society’s tendency to mislabel, simplify and victim-blame women. I mean, sure, it’s a highly sensationalised story that primarily aims to give the reader a bit fo a thrill. But unlike many of the big name thrillers that have been so popular in recent years, such as, say Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train (2015), The Passenger doesn’t pit one woman against another in competition for a man. Nor does it encourage the idea that women should aspire to marriage and motherhood. On the contrary, it shows that women are more powerful when they work together, their lives don’t need to revolve around men and they don’t need a man to save them or validate their existence. Tanya is a woman who has been silenced, pushed to the margins and vilified by men. Through the use of first person narration, Lutz gives her a voice and the opportunity to share her side of the story.
A good crime thriller is my favourite guilty reading pleasure, but I often find I have to turn off my feminist brain to enjoy them. When women appear in these narratives, they are often simplified as ‘villain’ or ‘victim’, corpse or femme fatale. In detective fiction, they’re sometimes given the role of ‘detective’ but basically perform the male archetype under a female name. So it’s refreshing to see that the tide is turning and that The Passenger is part of an as yet small-but-significant shift towards narratives that not only include women but in which female characters are rendered as complex and their femaleness is essential to the story. For example, last year I enjoyed binge watching The Fall (2013) and just this weekend I devoured L. S. Hilton’s new thriller Maestra (2016), more on that one soon.
If you’re looking for a fun and meaty thriller, The Passenger is one for the reading pile. One of the best I’ve read in a good long while.
See The Passenger on Goodreads and purchase through Amazon, Book Depository and Kobo.
Thank you to Simon & Schuster for providing a copy of The Passenger in exchange for an honest review.
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