True crime is divisive. Advocates claim it offers an insight into humanity, that it can teach self-preservation skills, that it offers respect to victims who might otherwise fade into obscurity. Critics see a capitalist glamorising of violence that perpetuates paranoia and encourages an idolisation of serial killers.
Penance, Eliza Clark’s second novel, is presented as a true crime book whose journalist author was ‘cancelled’ shortly after its publication, accused of illegally acquiring material and misrepresenting interviews. He is constantly present, using the suicide of his daughter to gain sympathy with his interviewees and trying to hide his disdain for ‘Crow-on-sea’, the place in which he has found himself. This is the faded Northern British seaside town haunted by scandals, closures and accidents where a schoolgirl, Joni, was murdered by three of her contemporaries on the evening of the Brexit vote.
As we learn about Joni and her murderers — the rich, lonely daughter of a local UKIP celebrity, an unhappy true crime aficionado, and an occult-inclined murderer fangirl — it becomes clear that what Clark is really interested in is not murder but the specific violence of teenage girl-hood. She is willing to see it in all its unflinching, vulnerable cruelties — ‘oh my God, you are so sensitive’ — and refuses easy answers. The bullied becomes a bully; everyone is ‘cringe,’ and everyone is lying. Is it art or are we just voyeurs?
Words: Alice Wickenden