The Next Time You See Me, the debut novel by Holly Goddard Jones, is a literary mystery in the tradition of Kate Atkinson. The novel opens with the discovery of a body in the woods by a misfit middle-schooler named Emily Houchens. The novel’s plot hinges on Emily’s strange reaction to the body; rather than telling the police or her parents, she keeps the knowledge to herself, relishing the secret and hoping to share it with the boy in her class on whom she has a crush, a wealthy kid named Christopher whose repeated cruelty to Emily is the source of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the book.
Soon, we meet young schoolteacher Susanna, the only person in the small factory town who believes foul play may be involved in the disappearance of her sister, Ronnie, who has a reputation as a drinker and troublemaker. Susanna, who is suffering through an unhappy marriage, isn’t an easy character to like, but she is believable in her complexity. While attempting to get the police to pay attention to her sister’s disappearance, Susanna takes her bullied student, Emily, under her protection.
The novel is told in a shifting third person point of view. In addition to Emily and Susanna, we hear from Emily’s neighbor, a quiet factory worker named Wyatt, as well as from the lonely middle-aged nurse who cares for him and the detective whom Susanna regrets turning down for a date a decade ago, when they were in high school. While this is a small town, the residents, each trapped in his or her own private struggles, are not always aware of what links them; their failure to truly understand one another gives this the feel not of an idyllic small town but rather of a community falling apart at the seams, its deterioration at once physical, economic, and moral.
Goddard Jones manages just the right amount of creepiness, mixed with strong characterizations. While there is a mystery at the heart of the novel, it’s not a whodunnit, as Goddard lets the reader know pretty early on not only that Ronnie is the body in the woods, but also who killed her. The mystery lies, instead, in the characters’ unusual reactions to their own suffering. Goddard Jones excels in peeling back the layers of human nature, so that, while our heart breaks for a troubled child, we also understand why she is an outcast, and while we are aware of the decomposing body in the woods, we nonetheless are able, in some way, to feel the sorrow of the murderer’s own life falling apart.
Goddard Jones has published one previous book, the story collection Girl Trouble, and she teaches in the creative writing program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. I was delighted upon reading her bio at the back of the book to discover that we share something in common beyond our Southern upbringings and our path from short story collection to literary mystery; in 2013, Goddard Jones received the Hillsdale Award for Fiction from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, which I also had the good fortune to receive in 2009. I highly recommend The Next Time You See Me and am looking forward to Goddard Jones’s next book.
Visit the author’s website, http://hollygoddardjones.com
Michelle Richmond is the author of the international bestseller The Year of Fog, the award-winning story collection The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress, and the forthcoming novel Golden State, as well as two other novels. She is the founder and publisher of Fiction Attic Press.