Smith (Love Her Madly, 2002, etc.) intertwines delightful stories from childhood with a grim chronicle of a sexual predator whose murder of the author’s grade-school classmate has haunted her for decades.
By alternating chapters on the pedophile stalker’s sorry life with chapters on her youthful past, Smith creates almost unbearable tension as she makes the reader wait for the two stories’ lines to intersect. Her vivid account of growing up in a working-class Italian Catholic neighborhood in Hartford, Conn., is filled with memorable characters: besides a raft of close relatives, there’s her indifferent mother, perpetually “on the verge of a nervous breakdown,” her hardworking, distracted father and her autistic older brother, who chews on his arm if he hears noise, cannot bear the color red or the word “Thursday” and is fixated on World War II—he advises the White House via his Campbell’s soup-can phone. As the normal kid sister, Smith is largely overlooked, gulping swigs of Hershey syrup for her breakfast before dashing off to school. In fifth grade, everything changes when Bob Malm abducts and strangles 11-year-old Irene a few blocks from Smith’s house. Adults try to protect the children through silence, telling them nothing, keeping newspapers from them and forbidding them to discuss Irene. Smith says her memories of the next two-and-a-half years are blank. Years later, when she is an established writer, she includes Irene’s story in an essay for a Hartford literary journal that triggers a call from Irene’s brother and launches her on a quest to, as she puts it, “build a memorial to Irene.” From newspapers and court records, which she quotes extensively, she garners details of Malm’s life, of his trial and appeal and even his execution, an electrocution that went awry. The reader may not know Irene better, but Smith, who gives only glimpses of her own life after fifth grade, illuminates Malm.
The childhood memories are great fun; the crime reporting workmanlike; the portrait of the adult relationships touching.