I admit it: When it comes to books, I’m a twelve year old at heart. Thirteen, max. So most of what I read comes off the Middle Grade and YA shelves. Randy Susan Meyers‘ novel, The Murderer’s Daughters, isn’t a YA title, and it’s not likely to end up on the YA shelves anytime soon. But I wanted to review it anyway. Why? Because it’s that good.
Like all smart writers, Meyers has the “gun on the mantle” go off in the first act. Ten year old Lulu’s father talks her into letting him in the apartment, then murders her mother and tries to kill her six year old sister, Merry. Daddy goes to jail, Merry recovers, and she and her older sister, unwanted by everyone except one ailing grandmother, eventually end up in an orphanage.
If this were your typical childhood trauma story, Meyers would anchor the girls’ lives in this one event, then link unhappy result after unhappy result until she’d created the traditional Great Chain of Misery. And sure, there has to be some of that in The Murderer’s Daughters, because what happens is traumatic. But what raises The Murderer’s Daughters head and shoulders above the pack is that it’s not about how one horrible event ruined the girls’ lives. It’s about how having parents, family, and home ripped away has set the two sisters on opposite sides of a chasm, and how each, in her own way, is trying to get back to the other.
Lulu ignores the chasm, hoping she can make it disappear. She won’t visit their father in jail, won’t tell anyone what happened. She just wants to move on. Merry sits at the edge of the chasm, helpless. She visits their father religiously, does whatever it takes to stay close to her sister. But she’s going nowhere.
Meyers knows a lot about this situation. As a child, her father did try to kill her mother. He didn’t succeed, luckily, but his violence left an indelible mark on her and her sister. Years as a domestic violence counselor also gave her insight into the heart of the chasm: How a loving father can become a murderer. The result is a novel with a seamless understanding of everyone involved in the tragedy, and empathy for even the worst of the human heart.
But The Murderer’s Daughters is no slow ride to the bottom. Meyers, like any great storyteller, knows that if a gun goes off in the first act, there has to be a second one hidden away for the last act. Hers goes off with a bang (figuratively speaking), and though the scene may feel a little too rushed for some, it worked brilliantly for me. As the climax of the novel, it did exactly what a climax is supposed to do: throw up the lights, illuminate everything the characters have been avoiding, and make them choose.
Meyers’ spare but musical prose, her incredible attention to detail and her talent for bringing all five senses to bear in every scene make it hard to believe The Murderer’s Daughters is her first published novel. What’s even harder to believe is that it took publishers this long to discover her. If women’s fiction is what’s keeping the publishing world alive these days, The Murderer’s Daughters is one miraculous shot in the arm.