Dark Rooms, by Lili Anolik, is set in and around a private, American boarding school and is largely populated by the privileged teenagers whose parents can afford the fees. Alongside the sex, drugs and decadent parties, which literature and the media portray as the staple activities in this demographic, we are offered an insight into the damage caused by petty bullying and loss of trust in significant adults.
The protagonist, Grace, is in her final year at the school. She is presented as a good student although this does not preclude her from attending the parties. She envies her younger sister, Nica, who is one of the popular, cool kids. Nica has friends who deal in drugs and, at sixteen, has been actively exploring her sexuality for some time.
The story opens at a party and we discover that Nica has been murdered, shot and left to die in a graveyard that abuts the school grounds. Grace is not coping well with her sister’s death. Her family has fallen apart and Grace seeks oblivion in drink and drugs. Although the murder case has been closed, the supposed perpetrator having hanged himself, there are many unanswered questions about Nica’s behaviour in the last few months before her death. As Grace considers all that she knows about her sister’s secrets she concludes that there is more behind the death than has been acknowledged. She decides to dig deeper.
I found it hard to empathise with the characters. Grace and Nica’s mother came across as sociopathic, but to blame her for all the daughters’ flaws seems too trite. The tough, poor guy who helps Grace out is beating a face to pulp one minute, the next he is gentle and caring. What he does to Grace shows a flaw in his psyche that I find it difficult to believe she could forgive.
The plot is intriguing and held my attention as it twisted and turned, easing out each of Nica’s secrets and showing how wrong initial impressions can be. It is not necessary to like characters to appreciate their value in a story but, in this case, I struggled to accept that so many of the cast could ever be real. Nica especially, with her ridiculous ‘titty hard-on’, repelled.
The idea behind the story, that a murder is not all it seems, is well executed. After a slow start I wanted to know what happened, and the denouement tidied up the loose ends. It was the development and depth of the characters that limited my enjoyment. This is not a book that I would recommend.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, HarperCollins.