I read the first 192 pages of David Bell’s novel Cemetery Girl lickety split. I couldn’t put the book down. I wondered – how come I’ve never heard of this book or this author? How come the only positive promotion is from other authors? Where has this author been all my life?
And then it all went to hell in a hand basket.
Cemetery Girl is the story of college professor Tom Stuart and his wife, Abby, and their daughter, Caitlin, who disappeared four years ago when she was twelve. Now, Abby has decided it’s time to say goodbye to Caitlin and has organized a memorial service for her daughter. It’s caused something of a rift between Tom and Abby because Tom hasn’t given up hope that his daughter will come home to them because her body has never been found. But Tom and Abby’s marriage is on the slippery slope anyway. Abby has found religion and is spending more and more time with Pastor Chris her new ‘best friend.’ Yeah, right.
For the first half of the book I was totally invested in Tom’s story and the novel’s attempt to make him a somewhat unreliable narrator. For example, he and his half-brother, Buster, have different takes on their childhood. Tom remembers his step-father, Paul, as a mean and abusive drunk; Buster claims it wasn’t like that at all.
There are a bunch of minor characters in the novel – Detective Ryan, the one and only cop still assigned to Caitlin’s case; Susan Goff, a volunteer with the police department (who is not a therapist or professional counsellor, just someone to talk to); Liann Stipes, a lawyer whose own daughter had been murdered and who has acted as an advisor to Tom; Tracy Fairlawn, a stripper who claims she saw Caitlin. Then there’s this mysterious blonde girl who keeps appearing near Caitlin’s tombstone or outside the Stuart house in the middle of the night.
Like I said, Bell kept me turning those pages for quite a long time. Then I just didn’t believe it anymore. I didn’t believe the way characters started to speak to each other. I didn’t believe the resolution of the book’s central mystery. I didn’t believe any of Tom’s interactions with anyone – they just all felt artificial. I’m a parent; I wouldn’t behave this way.
Cemetery Girl had a lot of potential, but a book like this depends on credibility and at the end of the day – it just didn’t have any.