Title: One of Us
Author: Tawni O’Dell
Genre: Slice of life/Thriller/Psychological
Review: Mental illness is at the heart of Tawni O’Dell’s newest novel. One of Us explores those who struggle with mental illness and their loved ones who suffer on their behalf. Danny Doyle, as an expert forensic psychologist, provides insight into both mindsets. In doing so, he offers readers a unique glimpse into the tricky trappings of an unhealthy mind as well as the consequences of such illnesses, unintended or otherwise, on loved ones. However, Danny is not the only narrator. While Danny is only an expert on mental illness and a direct witness to his mother’s battles, the second narrator provides readers with a first-hand look inside the mind of someone lacking in emotion and conscience. There is an obsessive compulsion to be the most intelligent, calmest, and more rational person in any given situation; anyone who stands in the way of that compulsion meets a ruthless ending. This narrator’s tale is every bit as chilling as Danny’s acceptance of serial killers, if not more so.
Mental illness is not the only theme at work in One of Us. Tragedy and loss are also themes within the thriller/drama. Danny and his grandfather must deal with tragedy and loss every day thanks to his mother’s mental illness. However, these themes go beyond the individual characters.
For, every citizen of Lost Creek knows someone who was injured or killed in the mines. All of the descendants of the key players in the ill-fated rebellion remain in town, still earning a living from the mines. The still-standing gallows keep the townspeople from ever being able to forget what happened which, in turn, keeps the town divided into the haves and the have-nots, those whose ancestors participated in the rebellion and those who brought down the rebellion. For a town so rooted in loss and despair, the events that unfold within One of Us are just one more proof of the harshness of life and yet provides a fitting closure to the festering wounds of history.
The characters within One of Us are quite vibrant. There is a coldness within Danny that mirrors the second narrator’s and an obsession among several main characters with appearance and designer labels that mimics Patrick Batemen from American Psycho. This can only be deliberate on Ms. O’Dell’s part given the nature of the second narrator and what one discovers about them both. In contrast to the two narrators, the other characters are delightfully quirky. Tommy is a force of nature, hilarious and gruff but with a sweet side that appears more often than not. Rafe is equally intriguing. His checkered past only adds to his seriousness and deliberateness seen when he is working. Then there is everyone else within and around town – everything one would expect in a small town without being clichéd or too cartoonish. This eclectic cast provides some bright moments in an otherwise somber novel.
One of Us touches on everything from child abuse to the death penalty, alcoholism to gender identity, abject poverty to unimaginable wealth and privilege, and more. While breaking down such barriers as economic status, the themes of mental illness and loss also serve to heighten the discrepancies between them as far as they relate to the inhabitants of Lost Creek. While the two narrators may be cold and distant, the story has heart and compassion, which undercuts the desperation and seriousness of the dead body and mysterious happenings in Lost Creek. The story is as much psychological as it is suspenseful, and the resulting uncovered secrets are powerful in what they reveal about the characters as well as humanity. In all, One of Us is a well-written, intriguing story that draws on multiple elements of story-writing to capture a reader’s attention and human nature’s fascinating with mental illness and deception to keep it.
On one level, One of Us has everything I’ve been looking for in spades – quirky, interesting (and yet those words are still tame) characters, with roots in small town life and no desire to leave. The core of this book is all about the characters, and the author takes readers into the past, laying the groundwork in history to show how that history shaped the people we’re reading about today. The story is ambitious, and it spans generations, with delicious family secrets to boot.
But for me, it took 14 chapters for the story to progress beyond character, history, and town exposition.
Past that 14-chapter mark, though, things finally pick up. The book is a double POV, told from Danny’s POV (he’s the son of an abusive father and a mentally ill mother – mom’s in an institution for killing her baby daughter – who escapes the town and becomes a successful psychologist) and from Scarlet’s (the daughter of the richest man in town, who hates her family and is, in essence, a serial killer – she has been since she was a kid).
I think it’s easy to guess where this book is going once you start reading it – that Danny and Scarlet are in reality siblings, separated by their father who was a drunk and wanted to leave his family and elope with Scarlet’s nanny. A plan that began with getting rid of his newborn daughter and shoving her off with the richest family in town grew into something that kept him trapped in the town, unable to leave. Their father is a minor character in the present, a drunk who hates his son and who his son hates as well. Danny is living out the consequence of his father’s decision and his father has never cared. He is not without kindness in his life – his grandfather Tommy and Rafe, a cop in town. I did wonder if they were only two people that saved him from becoming Scarlet
Scarlet, is half a product of a cold family and half a killer all on her own. She kills because she can, because she feels slighted, and I can’t help feeling Danny was probably safer without her in his family. The revelation that they are siblings is tempered by the fact that Danny knows she’s a killer as well, but even without that pesky detail, there are no happy family reunions for this pair. They’re both broken – by the families in which they grew up in. Oh yes, and Scarlet’s a killer – she’s her birth father’s daughter, I think turned up to 10. She has the killer instinct, whereas he was an abusive drunk intent on inflicting pain on his wife and son.
That is this book in a nutshell – family secrets coming to light in a small town with secrets upon secrets. It forms the basis for an exploration of a broken family, filled with secrets and violence. The history that was supposed to enhance the families that were part of this story, however, seems to take over most of this book, resulting in far too many chapters of exposition rather than telling a story.
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