Thursday, January 23, 2014

In the Blood

In Lisa Unger’s In the Blood, Lana Granger, a student at Sacred Heart College in The Hollows, NY, lives a life of lies and secrets, which she keeps locked inside herself and for which “there was very little I (she) wouldn’t have done to keep that way.” Lana is still haunted by the fateful night years ago that changed her life when her father (now on death row) murdered her mother; a fact of which no one other than her family and therapist is aware (or so she thinks). Lana’s just settling back on campus after an unbearable holiday spent with her Aunt Bridgette and cousins. She’s grateful that they took her in against all advice and good sense, yet she knows in her heart that she is “a cockroach in the batter of their sweet lives… a dark-haired, dark-eyed wraith in their sunny, golden-haired midst.” Facing graduation she’s giving serious thought to graduate school after all, “what was a psychology major fit for, if not more education? The human mind, with all its mystery, bears endless study…Doesn’t it?”

Lana’s aunt insists that “we are made and not born, that it is the power of choice that forms our lives.” Lana envied her belief and now she’s got no choice but to take control of her life. As a trust-fund baby there’d always been plenty of money for school, housing and extras but her mom had wanted her to chart her own path in life and earn her own way, so she’d stipulated that Lana would not receive her trust until the age of 30 which meant after graduation she’d only be receiving a small yearly sum until she reached that magical age. Taking the bull by the horns, Lana checks out the job boards at college and relying on her psychology professor and mentor's, Langdon Hewes, suggestion she replies to and interviews for a position with a single mom needing afternoon help with her 11-year old son.

Arriving at the address provided over the phone, Lana meets Rachel Kahn, who gives her fair warning that her son Luke is quite a handful; warning her about his rages and manipulations. Rachel moved the two of them to The Hollows so that Luke could attend Fieldcrest, a school for troubled and emotionally disturbed young people since Luke had multiple diagnoses including ADHD, bipolar disorder and clinical depression. Whether through the naiveté of youth or pure hubris, Lana had felt more than able to take on Luke, after all she’d done her internship at Fieldcrest and had even gotten an A in Professor Hewes’ class.

At their first meeting, Luke is all sweetness and charm though in the days to come Lana would think “as I look back now, it was really the first move in the game we’d already started playing. What was there between us in that very first moment that would have told, if observed everything that would follow? Nothing. I am sure of it. Not anything, not a twinge of instinct, not an internal shudder. He was that good.” His initial warmth proves a stark contrast to the icy stare and unmistakable menace he goes on to display on their first afternoon alone, and after that first confrontation, Lana notices a lock on the outside of his bedroom door and wonders if Rachel needs to lock him up at night. As the days progress Lana and Luke bond over chess and build an uneasy truce if not friendship.

Thrown into the stresses of school and her new job, comes the sudden disappearance of her best friend Rebecca (Beck) after a disagreement between the two of them that’s witnessed by others. Worry becomes fear as a couple years ago another friend had also disappeared under similar circumstances (after a disagreement with Lana), though that had culminated in tragic consequences when a week after the search began Elizabeth was found dead. It had been ruled an accident though the circumstances of her fall had been suspicious. When police begin questioning Lana about Beck and eyewitness accounts contradict her version of events, Lana is forced to lie – to police, friends and herself.

Amidst all this uncertainty and pressure, Luke decides to play a game; a scavenger hunt of sorts. Childishly she can’t pass up the dare in his eyes and that competitiveness just might be her downfall. For as she begins playing his macabre game, Lana realizes there are secrets and lies of hers that Luke seems to know and which he’s dying to reveal. Torn between real fear and/or paranoia, Lana is frantic to find each next clue and solve this riddle before all her secrets are exposed.

What a great book! This suspenseful psychological thriller is a no-holds barred winner that had me racing through its pages from its gripping first sentence to its perfect last word. It was so unputdownable, no exaggeration, that I read it in one sitting; read, read, read and before I know it, its five hours later and I find myself with a splitting headache, burning eyes and yet a big fat smile on my face from this enthralling read that made every minute of subsequent discomfort worth it. The opening narrative in the prologue which draws from Lana’s past truly reeled me in hook, line and sinker and then every page thereafter just ratcheted up the mystery and the tension with some deliciously unexpected twists.

Unger manages to offer readers not only a great tale but in doing so she’s also offered an insightful look at a troubled young mind. Unsettling and at times frightening in its honesty, it makes you ponder and empathize with the burdens carried not only by the sick individual but also by extension their family; the desperation and sense of loneliness and helplessness faced by a parent who feels like their facing their struggles alone. The book also offers a ray of hope in depicting the life-altering benefits and results attainable through love, hope and most importantly science and treatment.

The book is mostly in the first person narrative from Lana’s point of view except for anonymous diary entries which are interspersed throughout the book. The identity of the diary’s writer remains a mystery throughout the bulk of the book, until comments and descriptions provide the reader a clue as to the identity. The entries are written by a distraught mother and span years. The first entry is bleak as she describes her desperation at her newborn son’s endless inconsolable wailing. At first glance it appears like the problem lies with her and that her anxiety is fueled by frayed nerves, lack of sleep and maybe post-partum depression, but as the years pass the entries are marked by a sense of fear and later resignation. The infant now a toddler becomes unsmiling, watchful and unnatural; then at eight the apprehension mounts because now injured classmates are involved, as school after school washes their hands of the problem; yet through the years to come she clings to the hope that love will be enough.

Lana was quite an enigma; at times vulnerable, defiant, angry. I didn’t know whether to trust her or not, which made the story all the more compelling. I puzzled at her self-imposed secrecy and felt sorry for the fact that it brought her so much loneliness. In not letting go of her past demons and shame, she carried them with her almost as a form of punishment, while her isolation only managed to make the secrets seem larger than they were. Luke was intelligent and charming yet capable of turning on a dime; that random instability made him both scary and intriguing.

In the Blood is a great book; its fast-paced storyline, compelling characters, and mind-bending twists will captivate you from page one. Word of caution, don't start it if you have chores to do because once you start it, you just might not be able to put it down.