Oh, the pleasures of an old-fashioned Something Is Not Right in the Town of Stepford/Sandford/Antonio Bay/Milburn/Celebration novel. It's a premise that allows an author to explore themes of conformity and artifice while creating a claustrophobic, paranoid atmosphere in which the protagonist becomes increasingly convinced that the familiar, friendly fixtures of his or her youth might be harboring Terrible Secrets.
Not a bad metaphor for a teen novel, wouldn't you say? And perfect reading for a hot summer night.
Teenage Keri is mourning the out-of-nowhere suicide of her older brother Jake when she is approached by Janna, a classmate who also lost a brother to suicide. Keri and Janna live in Summerton, a supernaturally beautiful seaside town in the West Coast region of New Zealand's South Island. Summerton is a tourist destination that people return to year after year, among them Sione, whose older brother Matthew has also taken his own life.
Sione has channeled his grief into a small investigation. Working with Janna, he has been putting his data skills to bear on collating data about suicides in New Zealand, and has detected a pattern, one that he thinks centers on the New Year and Summerton. Naturally, Keri and Janna join up with Sione to find a killer and prevent any further deaths. Little do they suspect...
In the hands of Karen Healey, who in Guardian of the Dead gave us atypical characters, superbly scripted action and an imaginative plot, lovely Summerton becomes an increasingly ugly place to be for Keri and her friends.
Any very minor dialogue drags that may have occurred in Guardian of the Dead have vanished in this second novel, leaving it flawlessly, precipitously paced while still allowing plenty of space for us to get to know the personality, feelings and goals of each character. Characters which, by the way, reflect Pacific mix-and-match diversity in their names, languages, and cultural practices; and human diversity in their appearance and orientation.
In addition, Healey has a particular talent for description. Both of her books are so intimately hooked in to the landscape that they have made me want to see New Zealand for myself, just as Susan Cooper's books always make me want to visit Wales. I think if I wait a few years and Karen Healey keeps writing books like this, I might be able to book a New Zealand Gothic literary tour, like the Flannery O'Connor tours you can take in Savannah, or the tour you can't take of Yoknapatawpha County.
The Shattering will be a breath of fresh air in the teen section late this summer.