Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Book Review: IF YOU WERE HERE by Alafair Burke

If You Were Here

Title: If You Were Here
Author: Alafair Burke
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Read: August 15 - 20, 2013

Read an excerpt - link

Synopsis (Goodreads):

When McKenna Jordan, a magazine journalist investigating the story of the heroic and unidentified woman, finds the video footage, she thinks she recognizes her as Susan Hauptmann. But Susan disappeared without a trace ten years earlier, having just introduced McKenna to her future husband, Patrick. McKenna's complex search for her missing friend forces her to unearth secrets that lie deep in all their pasts.

A sublimely plotted mystery and a devastating thriller about marriage, private security and journalistic scandal, If You Were Here further underlines Dennis Lehane's assertion that 'Alafair Burke is one of the finest young crime writers working today'.

My thoughts:

McKenna Jordan, disgraced former ADA turned magazine journalist, thinks she is on the brink of a potentially great story when presented with private video footage of a mysterious woman single-handedly rescuing a young man from getting crushed by an oncoming train. She gets the surprise of her life when she recognises the stranger’s face – Susan Hauptmann, her good friend who has been missing for ten years, and is presumed to be dead. But as soon as McKenna starts asking questions, things start to go wrong in her life. Her email account gets hacked, wiping all traces of the video footage from her computer and her colleague’s sky drive account. Her husband, who was a good friend of Susan’s before they met, is starting to act strangely and out of character, discouraging McKenna from looking into the mystery. Evidence McKenna has used to base one of her stories on turns out to be a set-up, once again costing her her career. And worst of all, nobody believes her when she voices her suspicion that Susan might still be alive. To clear her own name, she must try to find Susan and discover the secret behind her disappearance ten years ago, which someone is trying to protect at all cost.

I really wanted to like Alafair Burke’s latest suspense thriller, because the underlying idea sounded exactly like the kind of book which would have me sitting up late into the night reading: a missing friend turns up ten years later on a grainy home-made video of a real life incident on a crowded railway platform. This premise alone opened up thousands of questions and possible answers, each presenting a portal for a great nail-biting suspense story. Maybe the limitless number of possibilities and choices was the problem, because instead of choosing one storyline, the author packed several convoluted plots into the one novel, each one containing complex twists and red herrings which presented an impenetrable maze of confusion and frustration for me.

There were so many explanations of past events relating to the main character that I thought I must have inadvertently picked up book seven in a series, only to find to my amazement that If You Were Here is a stand-alone novel. Excerpts from the protagonist’s journal, which she pens for her next book proposal, were so out of context and boring to read that I nearly gave up at that point in the book. However, every time I wanted to fling the book into a corner in sheer frustration, Burke managed to throw in a tiny bit of detail, a thread in the underlying plot, which grabbed me and kept me reading. And I must say that the general idea, the underlying plot which drives the story, is really good – it’s in the execution and editing where the book is letting the reader down. Bogged down by too many explanations, too many unconnected threads, too many unnecessary twist, the book became hard work rather than enjoyable reading. There are so many layers that you never get to the actual onion!

Sadly I also never managed to warm to protagonist McKenna – even after working out that McKenna was her Christian name and Jordan her family name, and not the other way around! Unlike Ellie, the main character of Burke’s Ellie Hatcher series, I found it hard to relate to McKenna, who came across as self-absorbed and shallow, not as the smart, strong female lawyer Burke wanted to present. Is the modern urban career woman really so hard, shallow and cold? Maybe I have lived in the boondocks for too long and am a bit sheltered and out of touch with reality? I know from past experience that Burke can write well, and present a solid plot wrapped in a thick layer of gripping suspense story. However, in If You Were Here I felt that the author was trying too hard to be clever, rather than letting her characters drive the story. I was longing for Ellie Hatcher, who I found to be the type of protagonist Burke likes to present in her books – strong, smart, plucky.

For those who like an overly complicated plot and an unpredictable ending, the book may appeal – however, it did not quite hit the mark for me.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Please note that the final published copy may vary from the one I reviewed.

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