Review – Dear Daughter by Elizabeth Little

By | August 24, 2014

‘As soon as they processed my release Noah and I hit the ground running. A change of clothes. A wig. An inconspicuous sedan. We doubled back once, twice, then drove south when we were really headed east. In San Francisco we had a girl who looked like me board a plane to Hawaii. Oh, I thought I was so clever.  But you probably already know that I’m not.’

LA It girl Janie Jenkins has it all. The looks, the brains, the connections. The criminal record.

Ten years ago, in a trial that transfixed America, Janie was convicted of murdering her mother. Now she’s been released on a technicality she’s determined to unravel the mystery of her mother’s last words, words that send her to a tiny town in the very back of beyond. But with the whole of America’s media on her tail, convinced she’s literally got away with murder, she has to do everything she can to throw her pursuers off the scent.

She knows she really didn’t like her mother. Could she have killed her?

Whether you love it or hate this wonderful book will largely depend on whether you like the voice (and smart mouth) of Janie Jenkins.  You’re highly unlikely to like Janie herself (although, at times, I must say I really did…) but I do guarantee that you’ll find her search for the truth about her father, her mother’s past and her mother’s murderer absolutely engrossing.  

The book opens with Janie released from a life sentence after ten years on a technicality, and not really sure whether she did actually kill her equally horrendous mother.  The fact that she was covered in her mother’s blood – and that her mother had scrawled “Jane” in her own blood before dying – was certainly enough to get her convicted.  Evading the world’s press, her relentless internet pursuer, and the lawyer who has tried to help her, she travels to Ardelle (perfect quirkily drawn small town America) to find some answers. The cast of characters is quite wonderful: the town’s history festival is just getting underway and every strange and eccentric individual is beautifully drawn as – along with Janie – we watch the mystery unfold.  

The real triumph of this wonderful book is Janie herself – we see everything through her eyes, through her actions and observations.  She’s incredibly witty, sarcastic, quick to anger, really funny, quite impossible to watch at times, at other times thoroughly mesmerising – you’ll both love and hate her, but it’s quite impossible to take your eyes off her.  Her stories about her past tell you a lot about the way she’s turned out as she has, some of her personal accounts made all the more poignant and telling by the interspersing of extracts of documents and witness statements from her trial.  

The mystery on which the story hinges – a family history we uncover along with Janie – is quite excellent, convoluted and unpredictable, and the book’s ending is a real shock and quite perfect.   Fast paced, beautifully and intricately plotted and written with such immense wit and character, it’s really difficult to believe this is a debut novel – I thought it was quite wonderful.

Dear Daughter is the debut novel by Elizabeth Little, published by Harvill Secker on 14 August in hardback and for Kindle: the paperback will be published by Vintage in August 2015.  My thanks to netgalley and the publishers for my advance reading e-copy.

Elizabeth Little was born and raised in St. Louis and graduated from Harvard University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, among other publications, and she has appeared on All Things Considered, The World, and Here and Now. She has written two works of non-fiction: Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic, published by Melville House in 2007; and Trip of the Tongue: Cross-Country Travels in Search of America’s Languages, published by Bloomsbury in 2012. Dear Daughter, her debut novel, was published August 2014 by Viking (US) and Harvill Secker (UK). Elizabeth lives in Los Angeles with her family.

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