The case of a missing child manages to unravel the lives of everyone involved.
Reviewed by Katherine Del Rose
From the beginning of What She Knew (HarperCollins Publishers, 2015), Gilly Macmillan places the reader in the center of the action. Benedict Finch, a young boy of 8 years old, is taken from his mother while on a routine walk in the woods. The witnesses are scarce, the weather is poor, and the first suspect that the police consider is Ben’s mother, Rachel Finch. Macmillan’s choice to include varying perspectives and sources to pull the reader through the story creates tension and forms a relationship between the reader and the two narrating characters, Rachel Finch and detective Jim Clemo.
Rachel, divorced about a year before Ben was taken, faces more challenges than just Ben’s disappearance. Apart from being accused by the public of being responsible for her son’s abduction, Rachel also discovers a deep family secret that her sister has buried since they were children. Overall, Rachel struggles to push through the accusations, acts of vandalism, and the commentary of others to keep herself in one piece in the hope that her son will return.
Jim’s narration gives the reader a second mindset, that of the prime detective on the Benedict Finch case. He has a very factual yet emotional point of view that is very enjoyable and adds depth to his character. While working on the case, Jim also discusses his relationship with another detective and explores a secret hidden in his past as well. He offers the reader a look into the case that Rachel would be unable to see, and makes the reader more compelled to finish the story. Not only does the reader want Benedict to be found, but they want the stress on Rachel and Jim to be relieved as well.
Through these two perspectives, along with varying posts from social media and websites involving the case, Gilly Macmillan is able to form very whole and complex characters. These characters seem to experience life as unexpectedly and abrasively as any living person would, and this causes each individual to find their own breaking points. The limits of every main character are critical to the novel, and each personality finds their own breaking point through one means or another.
For Rachel, her breaking point is easily found when she has a blatant monologue that addresses the reader directly, about two thirds of the way through the novel. By this point, Rachel has pushed away nearly all support that she had been receiving and is completely alone for the first time in the narrative: “In the early hours of the morning I woke to find myself drenched in sweat again, consumed by that scooped-out feeling of loss that was brutal and all-consuming and was no longer tempered by having people close to me.”
This solitude causes Rachel to vent to the reader about what she endures and the internal struggle she is facing to keep hope. Rachel seems to have a unique relationship with the reader, directly asking the reader at one point to: “imagine that you would have behaved with a more maternal dignity in my situation, that you would be unimpeachable?” This bond between reader and writer makes Rachel become very vulnerable with the audience, she even states factually that she “knew then, with perfect clarity, that if Ben didn’t survive this, then neither would [she].” The reader will be interested to see if Rachel stays true to her word once Benedict’s fate is revealed and his family must face the consequences.
Detective Jim Clemo has been building to his breaking point for most of his life, based on the description of his relationship with his recently deceased father that the reader receives throughout the sections of the novel from his therapy sessions. His life is also further complicated by a strong romantic relationship he’s having with another detective, Emma, and the effects this relationship has on the case. This issue eventually comes to a head when Jim states that he is “facing the charred remains of…Emma’s career, possibly of [his] too.” Unlike Rachel, Jim wears his defeat from the beginning of the novel. Gilly Macmillan does an excellent job of blending together the lives of her characters cohesively while still giving them a level of depth that feels relatable.
Overall, Gilly Macmillan has succeeded in creating a story that looks closely at what a parent goes through when their child goes missing. While Benedict is only briefly introduced and remains physically missing from the story the majority of the time, this causes the reader to focus more on the intentions of the story: to see what a family experiences when their child is missing. Stress, drama, guilt, and frustration are all deeply felt in Macmillan’s novel so the reader is focused exactly where she wants them to be. The effects of Benedict’s kidnapping also stretch outside of his family and into Jim’s life as a detective. As human beings, we all have a profound effect on each other’s lives, and Macmillan encases this perfectly in her novel.
Assistant Fiction Editor Katherine Del Rose was born in Howell, Michigan. Last year, she was a sophomore majoring in creative writing and minoring in marketing at Lake Superior State University and the secretary of the Honors Student Organization on campus. She enjoys reading and singing in her free time. Katherine hopes to one day move to New York and become a fashion magazine editor.