THIS IS HOW IT ENDS by Eva Dolan
CBTB Rating: 3/5
The Verdict: gritty, socially-conscious crime fiction
Eva Dolan is a name that I hear over and over again when chatting with UK-based readers - so when I discovered that her latest standalone was set to be released in the US this spring, I knew I had to jump at the chance to read it for myself. THIS IS HOW IT ENDS (on sale 3/13/18) will suit readers looking for a crime book that shifts focus away from the crime at its core and towards the social and cultural tensions that precipitated it—and the interpersonal fallout that it, in turn, precipitates. Thought-provoking and gritty, this socially-aware crime novel delivered one of my more conflicted reading experiences in recent memory. Dolan’s writing is razor-sharp and astute, yet the book’s plotting failed to deliver on its ambitious structure; the book’s characters are vivid and unique if often unlikeable; its first half is a bit slow and cumbersome while its second half is gripping and shocking. Writing this review has been a challenge precisely because there were just as many things I enjoyed about this book as there were qualities to it that frustrated me. Dolan’s writing has - deservedly so - garnered outstanding praise, and I’m confident many of you will find this book quite up your alley—but I’m equally convinced that your expectations for this book will need to be fine-tuned in order for you to fully enjoy it. My ultimate recommendation for this book? Borrow it from your library to see if it’s for you.
Three hundred gone. Just six left.
The building was once home to families, friends, children, couples, love, life. Now, almost every apartment is empty, the inhabitants forced out by the developers tearing down the old social housing to build luxury homes.
Only a few of the inhabitants have fought back against the attempts to evict them from their homes and their histories. And they have been joined by passionate student protester and would-be journalist, Ella, who is leading a high-profile media campaign to protect those who refuse to leave.
One night, Ella returns home to find a horrible scene awaiting her-the dead body of a mysterious man. Panicked, she calls her neighbor Molly, who convinces her that the police won't believe she's innocent. Together the two women concoct a gruesome plan to hide the body.
But the secret won't stay buried for long. As truth hangs in the balance, a neighbor tells Molly he had heard Ella arguing with a man in the hallway and mistrust grows between Ella and Molly, as repercussions of that night threaten to change both women's lives forever.
Crime fiction is arguably one of literature’s genres that is most capable of exploring social issues, both subtly and overtly. If you will, think briefly about some of the books I’ve recommended here: from the dense and dark THE CROW GIRL to the commercial psychological thriller THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, crime fiction can touch on difficult and timely topics (emotional and physical abuse; corruption within government; mental health) in packages that are as entertaining as they are thought-provoking. As I discussed with author A.J. Finn in our recent interview, you can often read a crime book on two different levels: you can read it at face value, enjoying the story and the entertainment it provides, or you can dig into the deeper messaging behind it. What’s different about THIS IS HOW IT ENDS is simple: this is a story inextricably tied to the social commentary behind it. There’s no way to digest this book without considering the social issues it presents—a quality that is crucial to take into consideration when determining if this book is for you. Dolan has crafted a story rich with astute insight and timely issues, but you have to come to this book wanting to read about and consider these issues to find it engaging. This is, of course, a very obvious observation, but I just want to be abundantly clear—this is not a crime book that skirts around the social commentary at its core. Instead, it’s a book that laces every interpersonal interaction and every plot development with this same commentary. Whether or not this is a quality you look for in your reading material is entirely up to you.
Where I struggled most with this book came in the structure of the story itself. Dolan has crafted quite an ambitious plot structure: readers alternate between chapters focusing on Ella and Molly, the women central to this story—but Dolan also weaves in a plotline centered around Ella that develops backwards chronologically. Between the alternate narrators and alternate time periods, I found myself having a hard time falling in step with Dolan’s pacing. About halfway through the book, as the purpose of the backward-developing plotline became more apparent, I did find myself “clicking” more with this unique structure - but a significant portion of my reading experience was detracted from due to it. The main problem for me was simply that I was too aware of the structure of the plot for me to be swept up in the story itself. That’s always a warning sign for me as a reader: when I spend more time thinking about the technicalities of a book rather than its actual plot development, something just isn’t right. Unfortunately, that was the case for me here, though Dolan certainly brings things to a tidy - and shocking - conclusion by the book’s end.
Where the first half of THIS IS HOW IT ENDS was challenging to get in sync with, the latter portion of the book - and its final 100-odd pages in particular - finally clicked in place for me. And once they clicked in place, wow did things take off. Dolan’s intelligence as a writer shines through in the exceptional way she ties together the story’s many threads to deliver a genuinely shocking and surprising ending—I was blindsided by this story’s ultimate reveal, and found myself glued to the pages as she begins unraveling the web of deceit she has crafted. What begins as cumbersome and perhaps unnecessary plot complexities morph into the foundation for a genuinely shocking outcome to this grim story. While I would not feel comfortable urging you to buy this book simply for these last 100 or so pages, I can confidently say that those of you who are intrigued by this book - and are willing to put in the time with the story’s opening half - will find its ultimate reveal incredibly satisfying—and perhaps even jaw-droppingly surprising. This book will never suit readers looking for a fast-paced, twisty thriller (it’s simply not that kind of novel), but it certainly does deliver its own brand of shocks and twists in its final pages.
Did I hope for more from this book? As always, I will be honest: yes, I did. But I also came away from it wholly admiring the ambition and intelligence of its author. This is no easy story to tell—THIS IS HOW IT ENDS takes readers into the heart of sensitive and timely issues surrounding gentrification, police brutality, and more—and Dolan serves up a story that is nothing if not thought-provoking. Readers who want their crime fiction overtly socially-aware and gritty will feel right at home in Dolan’s world. While I had my own frustrations with the structure of this book, I nevertheless came to appreciate the way Dolan weaves together the story’s many seemingly incongruous threads to deliver a jaw-dropping - and tragic - finale.
A note: If this seems like one of the more conflicted reviews I’ve ever written for CBTB, that’s because it is. As always, please feel free to email me with any questions - or to get my personal opinion about whether or not this book will work for you!
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. All opinions my own.
Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA (March 13, 2018)
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