Bury This Beauty, A Review of Andrea Portes’s Bury This by Jeni Stewart

          Bury This, by Andrea Portes, and released by Soft Skull, is described on the back of the book as “a daring thriller about the murder of a young woman in small-town Michigan in 1979.”  Her case, though, is never solved, and twenty five years later a group of film students make a documentary about the incident, leading to a reopening of the case, by the original detective.  It is, indeed, a thrilling book, and the short chapters make for a fast paced read.  I would recommend picking this book up to anyone who is a fan of literary mysteries, thrillers, and crime novels a-la Gillian Flynn and Hermann Koch.

The book starts out in the head of the murdered girl, and later, we are also in the head of the murdered girl as the murder takes place.  But hers is not the only perspective we get.  We also enter the head of her mother, her father, her best friend, and one of the film students leading the filming of the documentary, not to mention the detective.  It’s quite a panoply of povs, though its not nearly as jarring as one might think leaping from pov to pov.  Rather, my criticism here would be that the author didn’t spend enough times with each character, and some who are drawn in quite strongly at the beginning fade or are never revisited towards the end.  I was drawn into this world, and horrifying as it might have sometimes been, I was hooked.

Beyond that, the book sets up a kind of fairy tale role for its female characters, but then subverts that role.  The princess is not saved.  The children are not safe at the end.  The major female characters are either much sought after, or utterly undesirable, even when they are desired, they’re rather pathetic, such as with the murdered girl, Beth’s, best friend Shauna.  So much of the book focuses on how beautiful Beth is, how beautiful her mother is, how beautiful, even, Katy, the only girl on the documentary film project is, “She didn’t notice, much, the attention…from Brad or Lars, or Danek.  Even though it was obvious.  Anyone could see it.  You’d have to be an imbecile not to see them all circled around, leaning in, facing her.”  The authors description sounds like a pack of hyenas surrounding a wounded antelope.

And the author continues drawing these lines.  Of Beth’s mother, Dorothy, Danek says, “You would not have guessed that Dorothy Krause was in her seventies.  I mean, he knew they had children early then but holy smokes.”  Danek adds that “he felt drawn to walk up the stairs behind her, into the study and stay there, in this house, in this home, for the winter.”  So even as an older woman Dorothy is still in possession of a potent beauty.  A beauty that draws men to her.  A beauty that is couched, always, in near magical terms.  A beauty that is also couched in terms of predator and prey.  Danek says, only a few short paragraphs later, “…had Beth Krause inherited this grace? …If so, you could see why she was dead.”

So within the confines of this novel beauty, and female beauty in particular, is both a powerful asset, and an inherent weakness.  It draws in men.  But not, perhaps, the right men.  Dororthy, the mother of Beth, the victim, said, “weighing the odds of her ending up with her throat slit on the street against those ice-blue eyes and a place called home with a front porch swing and a man who loved her, she knew.”  Dorothy’s own cognizance of her beauty, and its peril, saves her, physically at least.  Her daughter’s lack of knowledge imperils her, and, ultimately, serves as her downfall.  “She describes herself, in the first pages of the book, as a “French fry with eyes” and also wonders “What is my name?”  She comes across as completely out of touch with a reality that is hell bent on touching her.

Much more could be said about the characterization of both women and men in this novel.  The novel is dark.  Its characters suffer beatings, incest, poverty, and more.  Except Beth.  Beth, you know from the beginning, dies.  It’s a fascinating read.  And Portes’s use of lines is intriguingly precise.  However, the occasional use of rhyming lines was jarring for me at first.  Occasionally chapters end with lines like, “…a wife gets to stare at a portrait while, somewhere in town, a projector flickers round and round, telling how her baby girl got put six feet in the ground.”  The rhyming reoccurs at several points throughout the novel, and is too precise, and, in its way, too lovely to be accidental.  At first, I found it jarring, and trite.  However, the more I thought about the construction of the novel, the more I thought it a rather brilliant element, because it heightens the allegorical, fairy tale sense of the story.  It gives it an oral history feel, and reinforces the sense that this town has been telling this story, reliving, and perhaps living, this story for decades.

I would highly recommend picking up Bury This for anyone who enjoys strong literary fiction, and darkly twisted suspense narratives.  With its short chapters, and its compelling story, it’s a fast read.  A can’t-put-it-down, keep all the lights on kind of read.  A read that grows on you after you’ve finished.  A read that’s going to make me keep my eyes out for this author in the future, and hope you will too.

About Jeni Stewart