Reviews

Masterful take on greed and personal demons

PHOTO: BAILEY TAYLOR

Krysten Ritter (above), the actress with a portfolio as diverse as Netflix's superhero drama Jessica Jones, cult comedy Don't Trust The B**** In Apartment 23 and the hit TV series Breaking Bad, now adds "writer" to her resume with her debut fictional foray Bonfire.

Ritter says she was inspired by successful crime writers such as Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame in her ambitious novel that grapples with dark yet important themes.

Optimal, a plastics conglomerate, is suspected of poisoning the residents of Barrens, a rural backwater town in midwest America, by contaminating its rivers and reservoirs.

Corporate greed and subterfuge, as well as environmental issues, might not make a compelling crime read under lesser hands, but Ritter quite masterfully takes on these pertinent themes in a form of social commentary.

But her zeal seems to be a double-edged sword as the novel quickly loses its teeth with the lack of focus. And there are many disparate themes: political collusion, a hazing ritual known as "The Game" and even teen pornography.

All this is told through the eyes of Abby Williams, an environmental lawyer who grew up in Barrens. She became one of the town's rare success stories when she moved to Chicago a decade ago.

She is now back as part of a team of environmental lawyers tasked with uncovering Optimal's misdeeds, taking along with her the skeletons in her closets and personal demons from her youth.

  • FICTION

  • BONFIRE

    By Kyrsten Ritter

    Hutchinson/ Paperback/ 277 pages/$25.96/ Books Kinokuniya/ 3 stars

She was subjected to intense bullying by her childhood best friend Kaycee Mitchell in high school, as the latter went on to become the leader of a band of mean girls.

Abby, too, had a tense relationship with her father, with whom she now seeks to make amends after he was struck with a terminal illness. She also quickly hooks up with the two hottest men in town (and her fancies from her teenage years).

But she remains haunted by the sudden disappearance of Kaycee, a budding artist who, 10 years ago, began suffering from hysteria and was, for a time, coughing up blood. Barrens quickly put down her antics as an ill-conceived big fat lie and her friends claimed she ran away because she had been too embarrassed at having been found to be a fraud.

The story's disparate plot means it feels like this could instead take the form of a 13-part TV series rather than a novel crammed into fewer than 300 pages.

But Ritter has proven her mettle as a solid crime writer who has many ideas. With a stronger focus, she could well develop a successful second career as a novelist.

If you like this, read: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (Orion Publishing, 2007, $17.95, Books Kinokuniya). Camille Preaker, a journalist, returns to her Missouri hometown to uncover the truth behind the mysterious abductions and murders of two girls, in the process having to reconnect with her long-estranged mother.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 09, 2018, with the headline 'Masterful take on greed and personal demons'. Print Edition | Subscribe