Fiction is the ‘suspension of disbelief’ — a voluntary surrendering of all logic and rationality to the lies spun by storytellers for our entertainment. We do it all the time to escape reality; whether it involves getting lost between the pages of a book or scrolling through our social media feed, we are surrounded by fiction. But the moment we close the book or turn off our screens, we come back to reality, albeit with a bittersweet feeling, wishing the lie had gone on a bit longer.

The New York Times’s bestselling author Lauren Oliver’s Broken Things is a tale of what happens when one encounters a story powerful enough to blur the lines between what is real and what is not. Two 13-year-olds, Brynn McNally and Mia Ferguson, find their lives changed irreversibly the day they befriend Summer Marks, the bold and gorgeous foster-care child in town. Summer introduces the girls to a fantasy novel, ‘The Way into Lovelorn’ by Georgia C. Wells, the only thing bequeathed to her by her biological mother. Obsessed with the fictional world of Lovelorn, the girls attempt to create their own sequel to the story. This compels them to commit some gruesome acts and eventually results in the murder of Summer. Since the act is carried out in a manner eerily similar to a sacrifice ritual described by the girls in their book, Brynn and Mia are soon singled out as the culprits by the police and so begins their undoing.

Though never convicted, they remain the murderers in the town’s eyes and are dubbed the ‘Monsters of Brickhouse Lane’. Years later, Mia struggles to repair her broken family by cleansing her house of the piles of trash her mother has been hoarding to cope with her separation from her husband, while Brynn bounces around from one rehab centre to another. On the fifth anniversary of their friend’s death, Mia and Brynn reunite with Summer’s ex-boyfriend, Owen Waldman — also a prime suspect in the murder case — to prove their innocence by finding the real monster of Brickhouse Lane and putting their broken lives back on track.

A murder mystery and exploration of adolescence, fraught with uncertainty about one’s identity and sexuality, against the backdrop of a claustrophobic town where gossip travels at the speed of light

Broken Things is a remarkable exploration of the world of adolescence, fraught with uncertainty about one’s identity and sexuality, and often characterised by toxic friendships, unhealthy obsessions and heartbreaks, against the backdrop of a merciless and claustrophobic town where gossip travels at the speed of light. The word “Lovelorn” symbolises the trials and tribulations of the main trio accurately; Summer is an abandoned child who seeks validation amongst her peers by wooing boys in her school and is the queen bee of the trio. Brynn is a lesbian who soon becomes infatuated with Summer while Mia is an ambitious, small-town girl with a passion for ballet dancing and a speech disorder. All three are miserable little things yearning for acceptance and searching for love, but get lost somewhere along the way, consumed by their own dark fantasies.

In the book we find out that the girls do come across an actual place in the woods called Lovelorn. Other than serving as an important plot device, the place is also meant to grapple with some profound questions, such as, what is reality? Is something unreal just because it exists in our imagination? What even makes something real for us? Is it our ability to imagine it or our ability to see and feel it? In the age of social media, we are no strangers to stories of people imitating bizarre acts in the wake of new challenges and trends that keep surfacing every now and then on the internet. Indeed, Oliver drew her inspiration for the story from the infamous Slender Man stabbing that took place in Wisconsin back in 2014, where two 12-year-olds stabbed their friend as they attempted to perform an impression of the Slender Man, a fictional character in a horror film that went viral through an internet meme.

Five years ago, when I had just turned 13, I killed my best friend. I chased her down and cracked her over the head with a rock. Then I dragged her body out of the woods and into a field and arranged it in the centre of a circle of stones I’d placed there with my other friend, Mia. Then we knifed her twice in the throat and five times in the chest. Mia was planning to douse her body with gasoline and light her on fire, but something went wrong and we bolted instead.— Excerpt from the book

For a murder mystery, the book is a bit of a slow burn, at least for the first half. Most of the clues as to the identity of Summer’s murderer are doled out in tiny bits through Brynn and Mia’s flashbacks into the time before the murder, while other clues are scattered throughout in the form of excerpts from the ‘The Way into Lovelorn’ and the girls’ own sequel, aptly titled ‘Return to Lovelorn’. The excerpts, both from the fantasy novel and the fan-fic sequel, are wonderfully written and have the dreamy, hypnotic feel of a fairytale about them, but do not give away much about the mystery itself, leaving the reader craving for an exciting ending which, sadly, the book doesn’t provide.

Nevertheless, Broken Things is a gripping, visceral and dark tale, one of the latest in a spate of psychological thrillers with strong and nasty females as their lead characters and with protagonists that leave one torn between despising or loving them. It would be interesting to see how the story would do in the form of a television or film adaptation or perhaps a mini Netflix series, if it ever gets made into one.

The reviewer is an undergraduate student at the Lahore University of Management Sciences

Broken Things
By Lauren Oliver
Hodder & Stoughton, US
ISBN: 978-1444786859
408pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 10th, 2019

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