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Burntown by Jennifer McMahon

BOTTOM LINE: This is by far her weakest novel.

Genre: Thriller and Suspense
Publication Date: 25 April 2017
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“A fantastic machine that can reunite the living with the dead. A haunting–and dangerous–legacy that could destroy one family for generations.

All families have secrets, but Eva Sandeski’s family has a secret that someone is willing to kill for.

Find out why she’s hiding in a mysterious place called Burntown…”

My Thoughts: Jennifer McMahon writes suspenseful thrillers with a touch of the supernatural to them. Her novels tend to be darkly atmospheric with a focus on the darkness of human nature. They tend to be intense and difficult to set aside. Her latest novel, Burntown, was dark and focused on the evil within human nature but it was anything but intense or difficult to stop reading. If anything, it is a disappointment for her fans who expect much better things from her.

The problems are not apparent in the beginning. There is a Before, which is Eva’s father’s story, that sets the stage for the rest of the novel as we learn his family’s secret. The shocking nature of his mother’s death also contrasts nicely with the method by which Miles fends off his mother’s attacker. Later, the danger is palpable as he seeks to save his family from the same fate as that of his parents, set off more starkly by the happy life he led to that point. This section is crisp and effective, providing enough backstory to flesh out the danger Eva faces and highlighting the greed which drives man’s behavior.

The problems start popping up during the After section as the focus shifts from Miles to Eva. Since the tragedy that befell her family all those years ago, her life has not been a traditional one. There is a touch of schizophrenia to Eva’s actions that confuse the narrative, something which is only compounded later by Pru’s active imagination and by the snuff the Fire Eaters imbibe. While I imagine this is deliberate in order to add an air of mystery to the story, it instead distances you from Eva. In turn, this makes it difficult to get involved in her search for answers, which is essentially the whole plot of the novel.

Making things worse is the fact that Eva is a mite too naive for someone who lives on the streets and has done so for five years. While there is obviously some PTSD at play here, she is too trusting of the stories her mother tells her, especially when she recognizes that they are far-fetched and highly unlikely. She is at once capable and yet not very street-savvy as she blunders several times until she meets Theo. In fact, it is not until she meets Theo for the second time where she finally puts together some modicum of a plan other than to hide and hope the danger passes. She may be the story’s hero, but she is very passive and perhaps not as worthy of that moniker as one of the other women.

All three women are meant to be tragic figures, but out of the three, it is Eva who is truly tragic. Theo is nothing more than a teenage girl playing at being an adult until it catches up to her. Meanwhile, Pru is a woman with a huge fantasy life but one that does not impede her ability to function in real life. They are an unlikely trio, which is part of the problem. While Ms. McMahon attempts to explain why these three women would find themselves working together, the answer requires some stretch of the imagination.

Actually, much of the novel requires some stretch of the imagination and not because of any supernatural element. It is because her characters, namely Eva, act in ways that do not feel natural. There are moments that make tremendous sense, but then there are too many others that have you scratching your head wondering what just happened.

Burntown is not a novel which completely absorbs your attention but rather is a novel that distracts and actively prevents you from getting caught up in the story. As part whodunit, part coming-of-age, part thriller, part cautionary tale, it is too many parts that do not mesh well together. It is a rare miss for Ms. McMahon, hopefully one of her last ones.

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