Clare, a teenager reeling from her parents’ divorce, investigates her strange new artistic obsession in Johnson’s young-adult paranormal mystery.
Sixteen-year-old Clare’s life has been recently upended: After her parents’ divorce, she moved with her mom to a downscale school and neighborhood. Now she’s seeing a shrink after some binge drinking over the summer, and she can’t stop compulsively drawing skulls with wings. Her shrink believes it’s delayed grief over her father leaving the family, but Clare isn’t so sure—especially when she finds the exact same skull image on an old gravestone for a girl named Samantha. Eerie parallels exist between Clare and Samantha, who died at 16 under mysterious circumstances in 1798. Worse, Clare seems to be re-experiencing that death in vivid, frightening dreams and visions. Does Samantha want something, and what? With the help of art-class friend Neil, whose talent, gentle ways and dark coloring appeal to her, Clare investigates what really happened in 1798. At the same time, she works on repairing her fractured sense of self in the wake of the divorce, forging new understandings with her family and finding a real friend—and more—in Neil. Johnson presents a believable, multilayered heroine whose narration is lively and insightful. Clare can be sarcastic and dramatic like most teenagers, but she’s also thoughtful and observant. Reflecting on her drunken head injury last summer, Clare considers Samantha’s death: “A girl my age, on the cusp of the unknown. A girl who deserved more than to shatter on a bed of rocks, before her life stood a fighting chance of getting started.” Throughout the novel, Clare advances in empathetic understanding while remaining very much a teenager. Clare and Neil’s sweet, low-key romance is skillfully integrated into the investigation, and it even possesses interesting parallels to events in 1798. Even minor characters, like Vince, the burnout house painter, come alive. Characters speak in natural sounding dialogue, as when Vince, looking at some mysterious symbols, says: “That looks like a bad trip I had once in an Arby’s.” The action is brisk, with a surprising but believable twist near the end.
Never stilted or clumsy, this debut novel reads like the work of a far more experienced writer.