Katherine Tegen Books, 2016
According to the Kipling poem from which this book’s title is taken, “The female of the species is more deadly than the male,” and Alex Cross’s flat opening sentence leaves us with no doubt of her ferocity: “This is how I kill someone.” From three teenage narrators who live in a small upstate New York town – Alex, Peekay (Preacher’s Kid), and Jack Fisher, star high school athlete – we learn the chilling story. When the three were freshmen in high school, Alex’s older sister Anna was raped and murdered by a man who was arrested but let go for lack of evidence. Alex didn’t need evidence; she knew who the culprit was, and she murdered him horribly. And though she was only 14, her ability to kill without remorse was no surprise to her; she’d long known that she was capable of savage retaliation when confronted with violent injustice inflicted on weak or innocent beings. That knowledge led her to isolate herself from all possible friends, reading voraciously for company in the house she shared with her alcoholic mother.
The plot concerns outcast Alex’s gradual flowering as Peekay offers her friendship and Jack offers her love. Slowly, clumsily, she becomes a more or less normal high school student who eats lunch with her friends, goes running with Jack, and attends the unchaperoned underage drinking parties so popular in young adult fiction. But her dark side is always there to be triggered by sexual injustice and violence that her contemporaries ignore even as they regard it with abstract fear. Will Alex’s discovery of deep, sincere friendship and love “cure” her of her violent proclivities? Like her friends, we readers desperately hope it will, for beautiful, intelligent Alex is a compelling character – as Peekay puts it, an Irish wolfhound among a group of golden retrievers.
This well-crafted book touches upon many important aspects of society’s casual violence. Alex and Peekay’s work at an animal shelter confronts them with puppies dropped in plastic garbage bags by the side of the road, with animals that have become savage through abuse, and with kittens left to starve. The school bathrooms are filled with hurtful graffiti, almost always with violent sexual overtones. In a small town where everybody knows everybody, people ignore rape culture and child molestation that they recognize well enough to deplore, because it has been part of everyday life for generations. McGinnis intelligently draws a distinction between the fantasy reaction to such things (“Someone should kill the bastard – serve him right!”) and Alex’s real-life vengeance. In the voices of the town’s policeman and Peekay’s parents, McGinnis also draws the link between the area’s deep poverty and the destructive habits of its high school population. The book’s only weakness is that having skillfully set Alex’s real-life violence in the context of her culture and given her a reason for revenge, McGinnis backs away. Alex has, we’re told, inherited her violent streak from her father, who has recognized it both in himself and in her with horror and so has left the family. While the point is not over-emphasized, it lets society (including the reader) off the hook by implying that Alex’s deeds come from a genetic flaw that has nothing to do with us. Read over that implication, if you can. Alex’s story is compelling, and its social context is all too clear.
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar from Vermont,” are both set on Boyd Hill Road.