Quiet in Her Bones by Nalini Singh – 2021

Home to the successful and wealthy, the Cul-de-Sac sits shrouded in the Waitākere Ranges, near Auckland. It is home to Ishaan Rai, whose wife, Nina, disappeared 10 years ago – along with $250,000. After a serious car accident, Ishaan’s son, Aarav, returns to the home to recuperate, despite his loathing his controlling father. Then the police arrive to tell Ishaan and Aarav that the remains of Aarav’s mother, Nina, have been found. She has been lying in her dark green Jaguar, hidden by the dense bush not far from their home, for those ten years. Nina hadn’t been driving and the money is not in the car. Aarav is determined to find out who killed his mother, and in doing so he finds this gated community is home to tragedy, abuse, blackmail, and murder.

The proximity of the crime leads Aarav to look at his neighbours, then the hired contractors who frequent the Cul-de-Sac, and then further afield via unsecured social networking sites. “People tell me all kinds of things because I’m polite and empathic.” And Aarav is an excellent researcher – he is a multi-millionaire celebrity author; his one thriller having become a phenomenon that has been turned into a block-buster movie. He is under pressure to produce a second novel, so splits his time between writing and investigating his mother’s murder. But both enterprises are somewhat compromised by the severity of the car crash that sent him home. He badly smashed his foot – meaning he must hobble around in a moon boot, and he seriously injured his brain – meaning he has gaps in his memory, crippling migraines, and a less than firm grip on reality.

Quiet in her bones is written in the first person, with Aarav as the narrator, and he is an enigma. He is full of self-loathing, yet he acts kindly and considerately. Is he the sociopath he declares himself to be, or is that just a persona he adopts as a famous thriller writer? – “Writers are professional liars”. He is the quintessential unreliable narrator, as much to himself as to the reader. The book is a journey of discovery and the reader travels along with Aarav and his shattered mind. All he remembers of the night his mother disappeared is seeing his parents fighting, hearing his mother scream, and waiting up for her with a leg that “hurt like a bitch”. As Aarav tries to piece things together, we learn about his persons of interest, and there is no shortage of suspects who might have wanted to harm Nina, or to take the money.

With Aarav’s increasingly frequent blackouts, his lack of memories of major events, his slipped chronologies, and his sleepwalking, he starts to suspect himself as much anyone else in the neighbourhood. The two people he loved most, his mother and his last serious girlfriend, Paige, both left him. And he starts to wonder if he was the victim, or the cause of their going. But the reader often sees Aarav as a good person. Not least when he is with his half-sister, Pari, daughter of his father’s second wife, Shanti. Shanti was ‘bride-shopped’ in rural India as Nina had been, and she is much more the obedient wife that Ishaan had been hoping for. Aarav finds out that Nina was as unfaithful as his father had been, and his memories of her perfume are always mixed with the smell of alcohol.

Quiet in her bones is cram packed with vivid, interesting characters, some of whom are dead – Nina is a real presence, despite our only meeting her in ghostly memories. In the Cul-de-Sac are those who observe but are generally ignored, those who gossip, those who are keeping long-held secrets. And there is a mix of cultures, some of which value family honour over justice: “Rich Indians don’t report domestic violence, detective”, “Alice never tell. Shame. Shame”, “If you killed your mother,” he continued, “then we deal with it inside the home.” Then there are the multiple medical specialists Aarav consults. He has given up a reliance on alcohol and is living on an unhealthy diet of Coca Cola and sweets. He confuses his medications, and when he is shown proof of conversations and correspondence, he has no memory of them. He totally forgets people. And he gets others to tell him whether his writing is coherent, he can’t tell anymore.

Quiet in her bones is a slow burn, the tension comes from knowing Aarav’s condition is deteriorating and that he must find the truth before he is totally incapable of doing so. And a sense of dread comes from the looming Waitākere Ranges that surround the story, usually drenched in rain. They are menacing, with parts closed off due to kauri dieback disease, a disease which “brings slow death”. There are kauri that guard the Cul-de-Sac, and “Should humanity stop tomorrow, the dark green would begin its takeover the very next day.” There are plenty of clues in the narrative, but even when the reader gets them, they aren’t sure who is implicated. Despite the physical, mental, and environmental difficulties, Aarav won’t give up: “Someone had murdered my mother, ended the angry brilliance of Nina Rai, and I wasn’t about to let them live in peace.”

A great psychological thriller, highly recommended.

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