In an economically deprived seaside town, three teenage girls commit a murder that shakes the very core of the community. Looking to redeem his career, true-crime writer Alex Z Carrelli relentlessly interviews anyone connected to the girls to write the definitive, emotionally truthful account of this gruesome tragedy.
The first thing I want to say about the book is that it's full of character. Presented to us as the republication of a controversial piece of journalism, I was always conscious of the narrator's presence. The book doesn't just give us a gripping true-crime narrative, the novel is a sharp satire on the ethics of true crime, each section beginning with a podcast transcript that pokes fun at the often desensitised way we talk about such horrific events and the platform that mass media has given us to do so. The book in question seems the moral high-ground, with Carelli talking to the folks of the town, but as he uses questionable methods to get these interviews, we see that he has something to gain from this book.
Such questions, the unreliability of the emotional and objective and emotional truth of the narrator and characters' recollection of these events, make 'Penance' an absorbing read. We are invited to understand why three teenage girls would commit such an act. Though fictional, Eliza Clarke's mix of real-life lol-culture references and well-constructed history of the town make the act of reading this book feel more like remembering than imagining.
I'm 25, the same age as the characters are in the book's present. They committed their crimes when they were 16, when so-called "digital natives" were figuring out a social life where the internet has always been present. I remember being 16 when your identity was defined by who you chose to be on the internet. Clarke masterfully captures the dizzying contradictions of social-media's alienation, intimacy, hyper-visibility and obfuscation.
Each character contains multitudes, many of which exist in the various accounts they have for different apps. It takes skill to take these discordant personas and tie them together in a way that makes sense to the audience. I wish I had Eliza Clarke's ability to write believable, multi-dimensional characters. It's hard for me to say this, without sounding like I think any teenager is a Tumblr account away from committing murder (I don't think that, to be clear) but, anyone who wants to gain insight on the internal struggles of teenage life should read this book. Anyone who loves true crime should read this book; anyone who hates true crime should do the same.