Tuesday, February 23, 2010

13 1/2

Nevada Barr’s 13 ½ has a lot going for it. Right from the beginning of the book, Barr forces her readers to look through wide open eyes at the horrors happening behind the closed doors of two very different families. In a 1970 Mississippi trailer-park, a young girl suffers a horrific rape at the hands of one of her alcoholic mother’s lowlife boyfriends. Meanwhile, up in Minnesota, a small eleven-year-old boy uses his father’s axe to wipe out the rest of his family. An older brother, heavily bleeding from what will prove to be a near fatal wound, manages to survive only by knocking his little brother unconscious with a blow to the head. Barr pulls no punches, choosing instead to describe the rape and murders in unflinching detail - and readers making it this far will feel compelled to learn what else the author has in store for the rape victim and the “butcher boy.”

Unfortunately, the set-up of 13 ½ proves to be much better than the rest of the book. Barr has written a mystery/thriller but seasoned readers will find there is very little mystery to her mystery, and they will be reduced to reading the rest of the book mostly to verify their early suspicions. What happens decades later when Polly Farmer, the rape victim, and the Butcher Boy cross paths in post-Katrina New Orleans becomes more and more predictable and less and less believable as the story races toward its climax.

Barr uses flashbacks for one of the more interesting episodes of the novel, the period during which the eleven-year-old murderer is placed inside a facility for young offenders. He is to be held there until, at age 18, he will be transferred to a men’s prison to serve the rest of his sentence. Because the boy is three or four years younger than everyone else in the center, authorities are reduced to locking him inside a hospital room for his own protection for the first several days they have him. Dylan Raines, though is a perceptive boy, and he easily adapts to the mores and requirements of living among the petty criminals and bullies surrounding him (including some of the guards). He uses his infamy as a mass murderer to good advantage but, as is often the case, jail changes him in ways that make him more a criminal now than he was when he went in.

Flash forward to 2007 New Orleans where Polly is now a respected English professor, divorced with two daughters, and Dylan is a wealthy architect. The two meet in a small city park where Polly sometimes comes to read and they feel an immediate attraction to one another. Will it be a fatal attraction for Polly?

13 ½ has the makings of an exceptional thriller but several of its main characters are so over-the-top that it is difficult to identify with the ones that are intended to be sympathetic. The exaggerated characters often border on cliché and give the book such a strong feeling of unreality, almost parody, that it is difficult to take seriously the dangers faced by Polly and her daughters. That is not a good thing in a thriller that could have been so much better than it is.

Rated at: 2.5

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