Saturday, July 5, 2014

That Night

Back in 2010 I read Chevy Stevens' debut novel Still Missing which proved to be a gut-wrenching and gripping psychological thriller and my favorite book for that year (check out this old post). Despite my initial admiration for this talented new author, I subsequently skipped both of her follow up books but I was instantly intrigued by That Night's (her latest novel) book description when I came across it back in January when I was drafting my 2014 book preview post. After reading That Night I can eagerly report that it was a phenomenal read; a suspenseful and well-paced story that hooked me and held me in its grip from the first page to the last.

That Night introduces us to 34-year old Toni Murphy who is being released from prison, having served 16 years incarcerated for a crime she didn't commit. Toni and her boyfriend Ryan were only 18 when they were arrested, tried and sentenced for the brutal murder of her sister Nicole. Out on parole, Toni is determined to stay out of the hell that was jail. After a tense and eventful stay at a half-way home for just released convicts, Toni is finally allowed to go back to her hometown, where she tries to slowly rebuild her life - finding a job, connecting with her dad, and even adopting a dog, Captain, the best thing to happen to her in a long time.

Life at 18 had been miserable thanks to a clique of high school mean girls whose leader, Shauna, had made it her mission to torment Toni at every turn, but nothing had prepared her for the daily struggle and brutality of jail. Now free, Toni is determined to keep it that way, a less than easy feat when Ryan, the love of her life, with whom she's allowed no contact as a condition of her parole, shows up convinced he can figure out the truth of Nicole's murder and determined to enlist Toni's help in proving their innocence.

As Ryan starts to ask questions, it becomes apparent that those mean girls know more about that night than the lies they testified to on the witness stand and someone has dark secrets for which they might be willing to kill again in order to keep them silent. As truths are revealed, Toni will have to decide if she's willing to risk it all to find out what really happened that night.

What a great book! That Night was enthralling from beginning to end and once started I could not put it down. No lie, I started it at 6 pm on a quiet Sunday night and did not put it down until just passed midnight after reaching its satisfying conclusion. As much as the tale is one of murder, mystery and suspense, it packs an equally compelling emotional wallop in its depiction of teenage bullying and even more powerfully prison life - the fear, solitude, and incredible sense of loss and isolation.

The story alternates between past and present so the reader is witness to Toni's developing transformation and growth from a scared kid to a tough woman ready to face her life and fears head on. The chapters which reach back into the days and months preceding Nicole's murder offer a scary look at the effects of bullying; a life lived in fear and uncertainty, in which the victim doesn’t know what comes next and is seemingly helpless in stopping their aggressor. Each day becomes a non-stop struggle where peace can’t be found at school, home or even at work. The narrative surrounding high school was perfectly written to incrementally ratchet up the tension as the reader drew ever closer to the actual night of the crime when our protagonists lives were changed forever.

The jail related chapters depicted not only the dark side of jail but also the humanity to be found there. The human connections made as strangers grasped for friendship and commonality in an effort to build a family away from their own. A sad statement probably true of many inmates was the fact that Toni had to grasp camaraderie and compassion from fellow inmates and guards, since her own family – mostly her mom – turned away from her due to doubts of her innocence.

I fully connected with Toni. Her character was so well written – human and real; she wasn’t perfect by any means, but I could nonetheless empathize with her false imprisonment, her early innocent bewilderment and later resignation as freedoms and rights were stripped away from her making her question her own sense of self as she paid the price for a heinous crime of which she was innocent. While Ryan’s role in the book is minimal given that Toni is the book’s sole narrator, the relationship between the two nonetheless felt real and strong, whether they were 18 or 34. The author portrayed in their relationship a simple bond of love and friendship that remained unbroken by time or distance.

That Night is a book that touches your heart and tests your nerves, featuring a petite heroine whose strength is forged in the fire of pain and grief and whose steely resolve and hopeful spirit the reader can’t help but admire.