Cemetery Girl by David Bell

This is one of those books that I almost stopped reading once or twice, but then something surprising would happen and I’d find myself reading later than planned, negotiating with myself that after I read just one more chapter then I’d do xy and z.

With it being October, I was hoping Cemetery Girl would be a creepy book, learning more towards horror, but it is a psychological suspense novel, mainly about Tom, the father of a twelve year old girl named Caitlin who goes missing for four years. No clues, no ransom note, no nothing. Caitlin’s Mom, Abby, is trying to move on and has turned all her energies toward her church, including her sexual energy, it seems, as Tom believes she’s having an affair with Pastor Chris.

At first you think Abby is a real schmuck and that the husband, Tom, is the good guy, trying to keep the candle of hope lit for his daughter’s return. But then his likeability is thrown into doubt early on for dumping the family dog at the pound. And then you learn he did it as a last ditch effort to save his marriage. Still, not forgivable (not for me, anyway), but perhaps understandable for some. Then you learn that it was that nasty Pastor Chris who put the idea of getting rid of the dog into Abby’s head as a way to ‘help’ Tom move on and that just made me think of Pat Robertson recently telling a caller to divorce his wife with Alzheimer’s and move on, but that’s a whole ‘nother story. Let’s just say the situation left me wondering whether or not to go on reading a 389 page book with characters that I didn’t particularly like from the beginning. One of the things that kept me reading was the character of Tom and how my feelings about him weren’t easy to pin down.

If you plan on reading Cemetery Girl and don’t like spoilers, you might want to stop reading now.

It dawned on me fairly early that perhaps Tom isn’t exactly a reliable narrator. He is, after all, an English professor writing a book about Hawthorne. Eventually you start to question just about everything going on in the novel, especially everyone’s motives, as well as their IQs and their emotional intelligence. It got to the point where I thought a good alternate title for the book would be Parents Behaving Badly. Or just Bad Dad.

If I had to sum up Tom in one sentence, I’d say he’s a narcissist loner with anger management issues probably suffering from PTSD stemming from childhood abuse at the hands of an alcoholic step-father and a mother who just can’t handle the truth. First he’s obsessed with believing against all odds that Caitlin is still alive and will come home. All he wants is for her to come home. Its okay that this part of the novel is all about him and his feelings. But then when Caitlin does come home he becomes obsessed with learning not so much about what happened to her, but about why she stayed with the man who abducted her. In other words, why she chose her abductor over him.

At a time when his daughter most needs his attention, it’s still all about him. This is when you really start to think something’s wrong with the guy. Is should be all about his daughter now. Maybe he never really was a good father. The prologue sorta makes you wonder about that. And other things happen. Such as the fact that he makes and then promptly breaks a promise to Caitlin on her first day back, yells at her, slaps her, and grabs her arm so tightly that he doesn’t care if he bruises her just days after her return. He feels bad about spitting into another man’s face, but justifies hitting his daughter as an attempt to help her. He’s also judgemental of just about everyone else. It is always about him and is feelings. In fact he pesters Caitlin with this whiny rant:

“What made you stay?” I asked. “Why, after all that, did you stay? People saw you with him in public places. You could have screamed and cried. You could have run away. Why did you stay with him? Why did you do that . . . ?” I resisted for a long moment. I tried to swallow it back, but finally I couldn’t hold it in. “Why did you do that to me, Caitlin? Why?” (355).

I have no idea if David Bell set out to write a bad dad novel. Tom wants to have a family, but it seems like he wants to have it without having to work at it. He sits and laments about Caitlin’s hygiene, table manners, and cursing and says, “All the things we could have helped, the disciplinary battles we could have fought, were lost. What was left?” (350). What? She’s only sixteen and has just been through four years of sexual assault and mind control and Daddy Dearest is ready to throw in the towel after just a few days?

In the Epilogue Tom says to his brother, “In the end, my instincts as a father are stronger than anything else” (387). Some readers may feel like that’s a nice wrap up. It might make them feel warm and fuzzy about Tom and fatherhood. But it creeped me out. Tom made many rash and irrational decisions, put his daughter in harms way, was abusive towards her on more than one occassion, and lied to everyone in his life. Is he carrying on his family of origin’s legacy of abuse and silence? Wraping himself up in the protective cloak of ‘parental instinct’ that outsiders don’t dare question? That’s what it seems like to me.

David Bell does a great job holding it all together. I didn’t like any of the characters in this novel, yet I kept reading, wondering what was going to happen next, even when some of the characters, as seen through Tom’s eyes, do some pretty unrealistic things and make seriously poor choices. Issues of trust abound in this novel, as do those of power, control, parenting skills, and family ties. I am impressed with Bell’s skill at weaving only Tom’s perspective throughout this tale.

Cemetery Girl
David Bell
New American Library
Source: review copy

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