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Wild Awake
Hilary T. Smith
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Bryan Peterson
What Happens Here - Tara Altebrando At one point early on in What Happens Here I felt like I’d been corralled onto a Contiki tour bus and I wanted off. I was still in the chapters detailing Chloe’s family holiday to Europe, and I found myself flipping back to the cover, reading the Sara Zarr blurb, and frowning. There’s a slightly going-through-the-motions, perfunctory quality to the storytelling – like breezing through capital cities so they could be checked off an itinerary. The Swanson family see the sights, Chloe laments not being able to share her experience with her best friend Lindsay, she strikes up a holiday romance with fellow tour-group member, Danny. While this is all necessary groundwork for the story as a whole, it does read like a warm up to the main event. Because when Chloe returns to Las Vegas, only to find out her best friend has been murdered, the story finally hits its stride and settles into the more emotionally nuanced narrative I’d been expecting. The mystery of who killed Lindsay shadows the novel, but it’s not the central focus of the story. What Happens Here is a thoughtful examination of friendship in retrospect. Aside from the “What If’s” that loom large in Chloe’s mind, she begins to see the flaws in the way she had previously defined her relationship with Lindsay and their respective personalities. Since their past and future were thoroughly entwined – from a shared childhood in North Carolina to plans for college and travelling the world together, Chloe is compelled to figure out who she is – and what her future is – beyond Lindsay. The novel is overarched by the theme of surveillance; both Chloe and Lindsay are preoccupied with the monitoring of the Strip, with webcams and satellites. They entertain themselves with theories about who is watching them in ‘the eye in the sky’, the idea that their lives are playing out on an invisible stage. This awareness is more than just a shared interest, however, it plays a part in the unfolding of the plot as Chloe becomes fixated on the idea that Lindsay’s killer cannot have gone unnoticed by the network of cameras watching the Strip. However, the use of Las Vegas as a setting is not just about its elaborate surveillance system. Chloe’s fascination with travel is contrasted sharply with her desire to get out Vegas, and there’s an irony in the fact that it’s a microcosm of sorts of Europe, with its mimicry of icons such as the Eiffel Tower, Trevi Fountain etc. Feeling indirectly responsible for Lindsay's death, Chloe begins to wonder if she might end up trapped, never leaving to pursue the plans she and Lindsay once imagined. Throughout What Happens Here, Chloe peels back the layers of grief, guilt and nostalgia that colour her memories of her friendship with Lindsay, revisiting past events with a new degree of clarity. As she begins to examine their shared history, their last fight, and attempts to reconstruct Linsday’s actions in the previous weeks, she gains a new understanding of the complex blend of loyalty and competition in their friendship. The dynamic between them becomes clearer as Chloe reflects on the reasons leading up to her decision to "go to Vegas" (a euphemism she and Lindsay use for sex), and the eventual argument that resulted. Further complicating Chloe’s grief are her relationships with her own family and with Lindsay's mother and brother. The emotional fallout of Chloe's father concealing his knowledge of Lindsay's death from the family while they were on holiday is widespread and destructive. There's also a lot of anger and frustration in each of them needing someone to blame, which leads to some interesting dialogue around victim-blaming, although I would have liked to have seen this issue dealt with a little more thoroughly. Whereas the beginning of the novel felt slightly like a prolonged warm-up, the ending was neater than it needed to be. By resolving some of the plot threads so cleanly, I feel that some of the authenticity of the situation was sacrificed. For example, the situation between Chloe’s parents seemed to be dealt with in the space of a paragraph or two, brushed aside in a manner that belied its gravity. On the other hand, the scenes between Chloe and her older sister were subtle and effective; here Altebrando's approach felt more realistic.Aside from some pacing and resolution issues, this was a strong and compelling story. There is a romantic element to it, but I appreciated that it was approached from the perspective of Chloe's growth as a character. Rather than an emotional crutch or distraction, the romance plays a role in Chloe's arc, and the outcome speaks to her gradual acquisition of agency in her life. Chances I'll be back for more Altebrando? Looking good.