BOOK REVIEW: Before She Knew Him by Peter Swanson

When Henrietta Mazur and her husband Lloyd move into a new neighborhood outside of Boston, they’re expecting to deal with the typical troubles of new home ownership: renovating, decorating and navigating awkward interactions with neighbours. What they aren’t expecting is to become wrapped up in the crimes of a serial killer who lives next door.

Peter Swanson is well-versed in the world of crime and thriller fiction. His 2015 novel The Kind Worth Killing was nominated for – and won – numerous awards, and attracted the attention of filmmakers and producers alike. That novel, like his latest, explored the ripple effect of a chance encounter between two people and delved deep into the psyches of individuals who commit violent acts. Swanson seems perpetually interested by the thought processes of dangerous people, and it shows in his intricate and character-driven novels. Before She Knew Him is a standout story in a saturated genre. It’s well-written, fast-paced, and offers a unique enough plot so as not to feel repetitive in a time when so many people are trying to cash in on the thriller craze. But for all its positive attributes, the story suffers because of an over-used and problematic plot device: using mental illness to turn someone into an unreliable witness.

Henrietta Mazur, a talented and successful artist, is a compelling central character. She’s smart, empathetic, and witty, and, relatably enough, she feels compelled to involve herself in situations that really aren’t any of her business. It is Henrietta who fuels the narrative of the story, developing a bizarre cat-and-mouse relationship with her murderous neighbour and desperately trying to call attention to his actions. Her attempts to bring a serial killer to justice are hampered only by her history of mental illness, which, for some frustrating reason, makes her an unreliable judge of character in the eyes of everyone around her, including her husband.

In college, a young Henrietta suffered a nervous breakdown and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a condition for which she has been consistently medicated ever since. During a medication switch years later she entered a manic period and began fixating on a violent crime that took place on her street - one that may or may not have been committed by her new neighbour. Throughout the course of the novel, Henrietta is on top of her medication and shows none of the signs of a manic episode. Despite this, her friends and family constantly behave as though her condition makes her untrustworthy, untruthful, and unreliable, when in reality it is the thing that made her knowledgeable enough about a murder case to catch the perpetrator.

Swanson isn’t the first, and likely won’t be the last, to use mental illness as a plot device in this way. In 2018’s breakout thriller The Woman In The Window (problematic for many reasons more eloquently explained here), author AJ Finn’s main character was scrutinized for her agoraphobia. Because of her illness, police refused to acknowledge that she may have information pertinent to their investigation. Before She Knew Him is a good, entertaining read. It doesn’t fail because of it’s problematic plot devices. It’s still a solid worthwhile read and an incredibly well written book. Fans of the thriller genre will enjoy this new take on murder mystery, and will undoubtedly find many of the same themes in its as they did in The Kind Worth Killing.

BOOK REVIEW: The Pisces by Melissa Broder

Grotesque, disturbing and vaguely creepy female characters are all the rage in popular fiction. From Gone Girl’s criminally conniving Amy Dunne to My Year of Rest and Relaxation’s horrendously apathetic unnamed narrator, audiences can’t get enough of inherently bad women. And while it’s refreshing to read about women who aren’t easily slotted into the normal categories for characters with two X chromosomes, it can still feel hard to relate to them and root for them. This may be in part because of the numerous ways we’ve been conditioned to judge and categorize women, and it may also be because, regardless of gender, these characters are just kind of crappy people.  

This is why Lucy, the central character in Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, is such an enigma. Despite her grossness, selfishness and bizarreness, she is undeniably enjoyable. I’m not going to go so far as to call her likeable, because she isn’t, but I feel fairly comfortable saying I rooted for her nonetheless. Throughout her wild adventures and dramatic ordeals I found myself on more than one occasion smiling to myself and thinking “you go, girl.” And if that isn’t the mark of a well-cultivated character than I’m not sure what is.

One of my Bookstagram followers described The Pisces to me as a “hot mess of a book.” It’s a pretty accurate classification. With a bizarre plot that demands suspension of disbelief and a cast of increasingly troubling characters, The Pisces is not an ordinary love story. Thirty-eight-year-old Lucy has been unsuccessfully writing her Ph.D. thesis on the Greek poet Sappho for the better part of thirteen years. When her long-term relationship with a paleontologist crumbles, she hits rock bottom and, for lack of a better explanation, starts to kind of lose it. After an incident involving the police, pajamas and Dunkin Donuts, Lucy finally accepts an offer to house-sit for her wealthy half-sister at a beautiful mansion on Venice Beach for the summer.

Suddenly the guardian of a diabetic dog and a frequent patron of love addiction group therapy sessions, Lucy begins to adapt to her new Californian life. But a chance encounter with a mysterious swimmer on the beach threatens to suck her back in to the self-destructing cycle of whirlwind romance she has been trying to escape. What makes the situation even more complicated is that the mysterious swimmer may not actually be completely human.

The Pisces strikes a perfect balance between absurd humour, disturbing darkness, and genuinely insightful character study. It explores the pressure put on women to conform to certain stereotypes in relationships and to constantly play the role of nurturing caregiver, and examines the pressure human beings put on themselves to not wind up alone. Lucy’s intelligence – and make no mistake, she is intelligent, regardless of her inability to complete her thesis – is juxtaposed against her constant need to be desired and wanted and loved. She’s so desperate for intimacy that she doesn’t even bat an eyelash at beginning a relationship with a merman. It’s an outlandish situation, but there’s something undeniably relatable about it.  

Broder leaves it up to the reader to decide if the aforementioned merman is a figment of Lucy’s imagination, fueled by stress, undiagnosed mental illness, and years of reading about Greek sirens and mythology. But if his existence is somewhat hazy, his actions are not. The Pisces is graphic and cringe-worthy and at moments vaguely painful to read. Broder doesn’t hold back on her depictions of both physical intimacy and human bodily functions, and her descriptions of the merman’s form are some of the more uncomfortable passages in the novel.

While a romance with a mythical creature may not exactly be Kosher as per the rules laid out for her by her love therapist, Lucy’s trysts with the merman lead her on a path of self-discovery, and what unfolds is a story that’s surprisingly feel-good and completely unputdownable. It’s hilarious and unique and so well written that at times you’ll be re-reading entire pages just to revel in Broder’s mastery of the written word.

The Pisces is undeniably bizarre. During one scene in particular, in which Lucy watches from a window as her befinned lover drags himself from her beach-side mansion back into the ocean after an argument, I found myself wondering what in the actual f*ck I was reading. But a moment later I was capitvated once again by Broder’s beautiful turns of phrase, and suddenly the strangeness of the story didn’t matter. What mattered was the meaning behind it – that love and romance and drama sometimes aren’t really worth all the trouble.

BOOK REVIEW: Brain On Fire by Susannah Cahalan

Imagine waking up tied to a hospital bed with no recollection of how you got there, your head wrapped in gauze and a strange woman standing over you. Your only recent memories are hazy and terrifying, and you can’t quite establish what is real and what isn’t. You find you can no longer communicate clearly through speech or written word, and a horrible paranoia plagues your thoughts. For New York Post journalist Susannah Cahalan, this scene isn’t just the gripping opening chapter of a bestselling book, but also one of the most vivid and horrifying moments of her entire life. It is one of her few clear memories of a month of extreme illness that nearly killed her.

In her early twenties Cahalan appeared to have it all. She was in a committed relationship, working in a prestigious newsroom, and had the kind of natural good looks and outgoing personality that attracted people to her. Surrounded by friends and living in a New York City apartment, Cahalan was well on her way to establishing herself as one of the most promising young print reporters in the city. And yet she felt tired - weighed down by fatigue and other vague symptoms of an unnamed sickness progressively getting more intense . Her thoughts were becoming more and more convoluted and her work was beginning to falter. A variety of tests for things like mononucleosis came back negative, and even after experiencing severe seizures, Cahalan’s illness was still being brushed off by doctors as nothing more than alcohol withdrawal (despite her not being an alcoholic) and stress.

 
 

Eventually Cahalan’s condition deteriorated to a point where she was having frequent seizures, violent outbursts, and symptoms of mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Unable to live alone or continue working, she first moved in with her mother and was then admitted into New York University hospital. At this stage her condition had become so severe she could no longer properly form memories and was unable to communicate effectively with her family and doctors. For a person whose entire life and career evolved around communication and memory, Cahalan felt like she was losing her mind.

Despite having a team of incredibly intelligent and proactive physicians working on her case, Cahalan’s condition continued to evade diagnosis. She slipped into a state of catatonia, and to this day remembers almost nothing of a full month of her life spent in the hospital. Just as doctors were preparing to admit her to a psychiatric ward, a brilliant physician named Souhel Najjar took on her case and diagnosed her with an incredibly rare and vastly misunderstood autoimmune disease called anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. Essentially her own body was attacking her brain, causing massive inflammation and leading to symptoms like hallucinations, paranoia, violence, and physical pain.

With an intensive drug regimen, Cahalan slowly began to recover, and with time became curious to learn more about the history of her disease. Through extensive interviews and hours of watching footage of herself in the hospital, she was able to successfully piece together the lost month of her life. Brain On Fire is a compelling and harrowing story about sickness, recovery and all of the unknowns lurking around the corner in life, but also a brilliant analysis of how medical systems deal with people who are difficult to diagnose.

The most interesting pages of Brain On Fire unfold in the book’s third and final section, in which Cahalan analyzes her experiences in the American medical system and considers what would happen to a patient with anti-MNDA receptor encephalitis who didn’t have insurance or wasn’t able to advocate for themselves properly. Though the disease is still incredibly misunderstood, researchers are starting to form a theory that anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis could be responsible for the thousands of cases of so-called demonic possessions that have been reported for centuries - cases which led to young people, women in particular, enduring brutal interventions by quack doctors and religious “experts”. With symptoms that mimic severe mental illness, anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis is likely undiagnosed in many patients who have been sequestered to psychiatric institutions as well.

Brain On Fire is an incredibly well written book, and one that reflects the analytic ability of its author. Cahalan has used her journalism powers for good in this book, and has created a platform for physicians, patients and families to discuss a complex and under-researched disease. This book is a must-read for anyone with an interest in science, journalism, or the American medical system.

BOOK REVIEW: In Extremis by Lindsey Hilsum



When war reporter Marie Colvin was killed in Syria in 2012 it sent a shockwave through the journalistic community. A leading conflict correspondent and veteran of some of the most dangerous places on earth, Colvin seemed impenetrable. Even an attack in Sri Lanka, which left her permanently blind in one eye and resulted in her iconic eye-patched look, couldn’t stop her from returning to the field. It seemed impossible that she had finally succumbed to the inherent risks of her job. But, regardless of her bravery and her reputation, Colvin was ultimately killed doing one of the most dangerous jobs on the planet, and with her death came the inevitable scrutiny and study of her life. What has been revealed is both brilliantly exciting and heart-wrenchingly painful.

In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin chronicles Colvin’s life from her rambunctious childhood to her famous career as a journalist with London’s Sunday Times. It depicts her force of will – for example, showing up at the Yale admissions office and talking her way in to the school despite having missed the application deadline – and the darker sides of her personality that made her such a fantastic reporter but also caused her immense personal pain – i.e. her drinking problem and tumultuous romantic relationships.

The book’s author, Lindsey Hilsum, is herself an accomplished war reporter. Like Marie, who she befriended through the industry, Hilsum has experienced conflicts in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Rwanda and Israel, and has real insight into what Marie experienced in her later years. Using Marie’s personal diaries and extensive interviews with her family, friends and coworkers, Hilsum has compiled a fairly complete portrait of a very complicated woman. In Extremis’ real strength lies in the lingering personality of its subject. In passages from her journals and anecdotes from her friends, Marie Colvin comes to life as a person of incredible liveliness and even more incredible nuance. Even in the more shadowy moments - the ones she’s left no writing about - her silence points to the constant contradictions driving against one another and forcing her to choose between love, work, and ultimately life.

Mortal peril was no obstacle to Marie Colvin at the time of her death. She’d been attacked with guns, explosives, and various other weapons throughout her career. Threats of death and kidnapping were par for the course, and despite these workplace dangers, she continued to return to war zones time and time again. Hilsum explores the factors that motivated Colvin to pursue war reporting, and the problems that plagued her decorated career, including an inability to file copy on time, a bad habit of wracking up satellite phone bills, and an alcohol addiction that threatened to weaken her credibility. Risky behaviors like showing up hungover to a battlefield and ignoring orders from superiors should have signaled that something was amiss, but instead only added to Marie’s legend.

Hilsum rightfully uses Marie’s story to demonstrate the hardships journalists - even those who don’t operate in war zones - face day to day in a changing news industry. Marie struggled constantly with feeling of inadequacy and pressure, and after years of witnessing and writing about the worst of humanity finally had to admit to herself and her loved ones that she was struggling. When being treated for post traumatic stress, Marie’s doctors, most of whom had only ever treated soldiers, realized hers was the worst case of the disorder they had ever seen. While soldiers normally only experience combat in fleeting bursts over relatively short deployments, Marie had been embedded in combat zones for months on end.

In Extremis is a harrowing and highly interesting biography of a woman who defied categorization and felt the emotions of life at their most extreme. She took her duty as a societal gatekeeper very seriously, and in exchange compromised her own happiness and well being on many occasions to give voice to the voiceless. Fans of Lynsey Addario’s memoir It’s What I Do will love In Extremis, and anyone who has ever watched war coverage on television owes it to the reporters in those clips to read about their experiences and gain a better understanding of what it takes to shine a light on the darkest corners of the world.