Welcome to Barren Springs. I’ve rarely come across a more appropriately named setting & once you’ve spent some time here, I think you’ll agree.
Our MC & narrator is Eve Taggart. She & brother Cal somehow survived a childhood of poverty, fear & neglect courtesy of their drug dealing mother. Now Cal is a cop & Eve is a single mom, struggling to make ends meet on a waitress’ salary. Twelve year old Junie is the one good thing in Eve’s life & she’s determined to be the mother she never had.
So it’s no surprise that her daughter’s murder marks the beginning of Eve’s descent into darkness. After the bodies of Junie & best friend Izzy are found in a local park, it falls on Cal to break the news to Eve. Meanwhile, his boss Sheriff Land heads to the more genteel side of town to inform Jenny & Zach, Izzy’s wealthy parents. There’s bad blood between Eve & Land & when you learn of their shared history, you’ll understand why Eve decides she must search for the killer herself.
Oh man, prepare yourself…..this one is going to put you through the wringer. On one level, you have a devastated mother’s search for her daughter’s killer. But along the way, the author includes scenes that have you pondering so much more. Casual racism, domestic abuse, the social chasm between poverty & wealth & how we (unconsciously?) judge the parents of missing/murdered children. These are some of the themes that run through the background & shape the course of Eve’s investigation.
The setting effectively sets the tone for what’s to come. Barren Springs is a place that reeks of hopelessness & despair. Opportunity has bypassed it completely & virtually every character is just trying to survive. If it had a town square, a statue of Dante would not be out of place. As with many insular communities, everybody know your business. So the odds of someone rising above their predetermined place in the pecking order is essentially nil.
With this in mind, we follow Eve as she begins digging into events surrounding the death of the 2 girls. Unfortunately, it brings her into contact with her toxic mother & Junie’s estranged father. Eve cut them from her life in an effort to rise above her birthright but as she swings from crippling grief to blind rage, the temptation to return to her roots only grows stronger. With Junie gone, her only reason to keep breathing is revenge.
Once again, this author has created a cast of characters that evoke every emotion. Eve’s mother is a feral woman who survives on cigarettes & hate. Sheriff Land makes your skin crawl every time he steps on the page & you’ll begin to consider ways of wiping the smarmy grin off his face (note to self: delete search history 😈). Eve & Jenny seem polar opposites until events force them together & I really enjoyed the evolution of their relationship.
The story is relentlessly bleak so it seems wrong to say I “enjoyed” it. It’s grim, gritty & makes no attempt to gloss over the ugly sides of human nature. The ending left me drained & in need of a beverage while I processed what happened. But you can only become that immersed in a work of fiction if the author has the tools & ability to pull it off. Ms. Engel clearly does.