Bonfire

TW Sexual exploitation/revenge porn

It has been ten years since Abby Williams left home and scrubbed away all evidence of her small-town roots. Now working as an environmental lawyer in Chicago, she has a thriving career, a modern apartment, and her pick of meaningless one-night stands.

But when a new case takes her back home to Barrens, Indiana, the life Abby painstakingly created begins to crack. Tasked with investigating Optimal Plastics, the town’s economic heart, she begins to find strange connections to a decade-old scandal involving the popular Kaycee Mitchell and her friends – just before Kaycee disappeared for good.

As Abby tried desperately to find out what happened to Kaycee, troubling memories begin to resurface and she starts to doubt her own observations. And when she unearths an even more disturbing secret, her search threatens the reputations, and lives, of the community, and risks exposing a darkness that may consume her.

With tantalising twists, slow-burning suspense, and a remote, rural town of five claustrophobic miles, Bonfire is a dark exploration of what can happen when your past and present collide.

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Bonfire by Krysten Ritter – actor, writer, dog owner and knitter extraordinaire – is a hair-raising, sickening, intriguing, dark and compulsively readable thriller. Consumed with corporate crime, sexual exploitation, abuse and cover ups, it makes for a deeply unsettling and memorable debut. While I was reading it I found myself thinking… So Krysten gets to be good at everything?  The worst part is I couldn’t even resent her for it. I was enjoying myself too much.

There is a lot to unpick in Bonfire. The mystery is enthralling and wide ranging. Our MC, Abby’s home town of Barrens is all but owned by a plastics corporation called Optimal. Though Abby left Barrens when she graduated high school and vowed never to return, the spectre of the place and, particularly, the ominous role that Optimal played within it had never truly released its grip on her. During her final year of high school, three girls in her class got sick. It started with the school’s it girl – and Abby’s primary tormentor – Kaycee Mitchell one day collapsing and having a seizure during a school assembly. Then the sickness spread through all of her friends. After a few weeks of fear and madness the girls all said they were faking, and shortly after that, Kaycee Mitchell disappeared for good. But Abby saw Kaycee’s sickness, and she never bought the idea that it could possibly be a lie. Abby’s theory was always that the sickness that overtook her high school was connected to Optimal somehow, and ten years later, she’s finally come home to prove it.

Unsurprisingly, this turns out to be easier said than done. Optimal has infiltrated the lifeblood of the town, not only providing the main source of employment, but funding for local schools and infrastructure. It’s hard to find anyone to speak against the company, and impossible to coax anyone to speak about what happened to Kaycee Mitchell all those years ago. The town only wants to forget – but Abby Williams refuses to let them.

One determined woman against a for-sure evil corporation determined to uncover the truth about a years old mystery by itself would have had me sold, but Bonfire, as it turns out, is about a lot more than that.

Abby’s relationship with Barrens is a complicated one. She was severely bullied throughout high school, and the torment didn’t end when she went home. Her conservative Christian father only brought violence and shame into her life, and his behaviour worsened after her mother passed away at the end of a lengthy and gruelling battle with cancer. Her childhood and teen years were characterised by loneliness, anger and grief and hard as she has tried – she has built a successful life as a lawyer in Chicago – she has been unable to let go of any of those feelings. Throughout the course of the novel they take over completely and ultimately they fuel her quest for the truth. Who could be more determined to uplift the voiceless than someone who spent years trapped herself?

There really is nothing better than wrapping up warm on a cold winter night, pouring yourself a cup of tea – or wine, depending on your inclinations – and immersing yourself in a thriller. I can think of none better than the claustrophobic, intriguing and disquieting world Ritter has created.

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

TW for discussions of rape and sexual assault.

The Industrialist

Henrk Vanger, head of the dynastic Vanger Corporation, is tormented by the loss of a child decades earlier and convinced that a member of his family has committed the murder.

The Journalist

Mikael Blomkvist delves deep into the Vangers’ past to uncover the truth behind the unsolved mystery. But someone else wants the past to remain a secret and will go to any lengths to keep it that way. 

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Lisbeth Salander, the enigmatic, delinquent and dangerous security specialist, assists in the investigation. A genius computer hacker, she tolerates no restrictions placed upon her by individuals, society or the law. 

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I knew going in that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson was a book that was concerned with rape and sexual violence. What I didn’t realise was that it is consumed by it. There are graphic, horrifying scenes of rape and sexual assault in this novel. Had I known before starting the book how upsetting it would be, I probably wouldn’t have read it at all.

That said, I’m really glad that I did. The words ‘feminist hero’ get thrown around a lot. Usually it refers to a girl with quick wit who isn’t afraid to use her fists. She’s almost always beautiful. She is nothing like the girl with the dragon tattoo. Lisbeth Salander is a warrior crafted by a misogynist culture. She’s unconcerned with beauty and a lot more interested in repelling people than attracting them. She’s a genius of the Sherlock-ian variety.

She’s also a ward of the state who spent her formative years either locked in a psychiatric institution or running from ill-equipped foster families (and usually into the police). After an incident in which she kicked a man in the head (after he groped her, in front of several witnesses), she is declared emotionally disturbed (because she refused to participate in her psychiatric evaluation), and in need of a guardian. This means that all her assets and interests are controlled by a state sanctioned official. While reading, you can’t help but feel Lisbeth is being punished for her lack of conformity to the agreed standards of femininity rather than any actual law breaking. Her crimes are: defending herself from the men who would attack her, having a lot of sex, using drugs and a refusal to co-operate with the agreed norms of society. Worldwide, there is a grim history of the violent removal of freedom from women who are deemed a threat to those aforementioned norms. Whether it’s force-feeding suffragettes on hunger strike, female genital mutilation, institutionalising women for their ‘hysterical wandering wombs’ or burning them at the stake for ‘being witches’ – women who refuse to conform are punished and forced to live as outcasts with control over their finances, spaces and their bodies taken from them.

Lisbeth suffers all these injustices at the hands of the state. In addition to taking control of her finances and thus, her freedom, her government appointed guardian, Advokat Bjurman, rapes her twice.

The rape is an event that is supposed to break Lisbeth. Bjurman’s intent is to control her, force her to submit to the obedience and quiet that comprise the norms of femininity (as it’s defined by misogynist culture). Rather than shrink, as she is supposed to, and continue to have non-consensual sex with him in return for her own money, as he intends, Lisbeth makes a plan. Owing to her history with institutionalisation, the police don’t feel like an option, so she instead develops her own twisted violent revenge scheme. I can’t pretend that reading Lisbeth ruin Bjurman beyond repair was anything but satisfying. In the span of only a few hours she picks apart the pieces of his life, removing his power as thoroughly as he tried to do her own. She leaves him defeated, the words ‘I AM A SADISTIC PIG, A PERVERT AND A RAPIST’ literally tattooed across his violated, trembling body.

From what I can gather, there were many readers uncomfortable with Lisbeth’s actions. During some reading I did to prep for writing this review, I found book club discussion points online, all of them questioning whether or not Lisbeth took the right action. These questions speak directly to the point that Larsson wants to make about gender norms. As I said, the rape was supposed to defeat Lisbeth. Instead, it enraged her. She was obsessed with regaining her power. That led her to take violent action, something we rarely attribute to women, and especially women we consider victims. Larsson uses the almost instinctive sympathy we feel for Bjurman during Lisbeth’s attack as a demonstration of internalised misogyny. While what happened to Lisbeth was awfully inevitable – the rape of a young, troubled woman with no family support and criminal tendencies – what happened the Bjurman – the assault of a wealthy, middle class white man – was disturbing and completely unexpected.

Larsson originally called this series Men Who Hate Women. I wish the publishers had stuck with it. After her rape, Lisbeth becomes driven by the defeat of such men. It is what the rest of the novel – because the events I have discussed make up barely a quarter of it – is about.