Don’t Breathe a Word by Jennifer McMahon is either a straight-up thriller or a pseudo-fantasy, depending on how the reader interprets certain events. Either way, this adult novel gave me the creeps (in a good way) and has me seeking out other books by McMahon.
Fifteen years ago, tween Lisa Nazzaro disappeared in the woods behind her home. Before she disappeared, she told her brother Sam and her cousin Evie that she was going to meet the King of the Fairies, who would take her to the Land of the Fairies and make her his Queen. Lisa was never found, and her disappearance is still shrouded in mystery.
In present day we meet Phoebe, a woman who has managed to dig herself out of an unpleasant past and make a life for herself with Sam. Sam doesn’t speak much of his sister who disappeared a decade and a half ago. One day, Phoebe receives a phone call from a young girl, and the girl tells Phoebe that Lisa has returned from the Land of the Fairies and they should meet her in the forest in a few days.
From then on, things get super creepy. Phoebe and Sam reunite with Evie and her husband in order to determine what to do. Evie has something to share that will shed more light on the mystery of Lisa’s disappearance, but before much can be determined, an old woman shows up at the house where they’re staying, stabs Evie with a corkscrew, and takes off running. Phoebe and Sam give chase, and things get even creepier after that.
Phoebe has had nightmares – or visions, really – since she was a little girl about a dark man who hides in the shadows, in doorways, and underneath her bed. Her drunk mother sometimes explained it away as a dream, and sometimes acknowledged that the dark man was there, letting on that she, too, had seen him on occasion. Is this dark man the King of the Fairies who stole Lisa away all those years ago? You’ll wonder up until the very end, and even after you turn the last page you’ll still wonder.
The book flits back and forth between the past and present, alternating between Phoebe and Sam’s current investigation into Lisa’s disappearance and the summer fifteen years ago when Lisa disappeared. The present-time entries are told mostly from Phoebe’s perspective, and the past-time entries from Lisa’s. This method works so perfectly, because it allows the reader to piece things together bit by bit, slowly coming to a full understanding of what really happened the night Lisa disappeared. Or as full of an understanding as you can get.
I loved so many things about this book. For one thing, it’s got such a twisty plot. Just when I thought things were settling down into a more normal clue-searching, calm sort of mystery, McMahon threw something creepy at me. She’s got a way of writing that makes you want to check underneath your own bed to make sure there isn’t a trap door there from where the evil King of the Fairies can emerge and snatch you away.
I’ve probably used the word creepy about a dozen times in this review, but it’s really the most accurate term. To be honest, I’ve kind of creeped myself out just by summarizing the plot here, and the odd noises my refrigerator is making don’t help. Don’t Breathe a Word is a real page-turner that manages to tie up all loose ends – giving the reader awful but rational answers – but still leave you with shivers and a decision to make at the end.
That decision you make, it’s a big one. What I loved most about the book is how it toed the line between realism and fantasy. When you read the last few pages, after you think everything’s been answered satisfactorily and comfortably explained away and there couldn’t possibly be anything more to say, McMahon shows you that she does have more to say. How do you interpret it? Are there malevolent fairies, or are they just a figment of a girl’s imagination, of her need to explain away the terrible things that happened to her? It could really go either way, and I love it.
Speaking of creepy, McMahon’s book covers all seem to have a theme: creepy girl with big eyes staring at you. (You can see a collection of them on one page at the author’s Goodreads page.) The effect works very well with Don’t Breathe a Word, and I think it’s interesting that it’s a trend for her books. It’s actually one of the reasons I’ve decided to seek out McMahon’s other books – I want a similar read to this one, and the similarity of the covers indicates she’s written more in this vein.
This is just the kind of adult book (or book in general, really) that I like to read: a plot that keeps me guessing, writing that flows well and doesn’t jar me out of the story with unnecessary flourishes, compelling characters with mysterious, sometimes lurid, pasts. It got my heart rate up for sure, and I dug every moment.
Copy provided by the publisher in exchange for my honest opinion. Don’t Breathe a Word is on sale May 17.