Book review: Please See Us by Caitlin Mullen

Sunday, April 26, 2020 Permalink

There was so much I loved about Please See Us by Caitlin Mullen. Her writing is stunning. We alternate between three individual narrators and move to third person plural at times – which is something you don’t come across often. Those sections of the book…. the voices of the women in the marsh, are desperately tragic but also poignant. Not bitter, but strangely hopeful.

There is a sisterhood among them, these women in the marsh. Each time he brings another one, they understand what she has seen. p 160

Book review: Please See Us by Caitlin MullenPlease See Us
by Caitlin Mullen
Published by Gallery Books
on 01/04/2020
Source: Simon & Schuster
Genres: Thriller / Suspense
ISBN: 9781982152581
Pages: 352

Summer has come to Atlantic City but the boardwalk is empty of tourists, the casino lights have dimmed, and two Jane Does are laid out in the marshland behind the Sunset Motel, just west of town. Only one person even knows they’re there.

Meanwhile, Clara, a young boardwalk psychic, struggles to attract clients for the tarot readings that pay her rent. When she begins to experience very real and disturbing visions, she suspects they could be related to the recent cases of women gone missing in town.

When Clara meets Lily, an ex-Soho art gallery girl who is working at a desolate casino spa and reeling from a personal tragedy, she thinks Lily may be able to help her.

But Lily has her own demons to face. If they can put the pieces together in time, they may save another lost girl—so long as their efforts don’t attract perilous attention first. Can they break the ill-fated cycle, or will they join the other victims?

There’s a sense of foreboding, of suspense here, as the number of women in the marsh grow. Mullen’s written it in a way that we’re not entirely sure when each of the women appear there. She also refers to them as Jane 1, 2 etc (Jane) so we soon realise that any of the characters we are meeting could indeed be one of the Janes.

Mullen offers us some backstory for each of the Janes and—in addition to them having a shared voice after being left in the marsh—I liked that we got to ‘meet’ them even-briefly and see them as women with hopes, dreams. And regrets.

The women pass the long days and nights working the past over, studying the mistakes they made, the bad luck that reached in like a hand and turned them away from the lives they should have had. p 9

I also liked our two female leads. We’re offered quite a bit of backstory about both Lily and Ava (aka Clara). They’re very different but I must say I felt both sad and angry on behalf of the young clairvoyant teenager who deserved so much more than the hand she’s been dealt. (Pun intended!)

The plot around Clara and Lily takes place chronologically. However both Clara and Lily desperately want to escape their lives and show glimpses of self-destructive behaviour, so there’s a real sense of fear (for we readers) as new victims appear. Will the next Jane be Clara or Lily? Or are they already in the swamp and we’re just catching up?

By the second week in June, there are two dead women laid out like tallies in the stretch of marsh just behind the Sunset Motel. They are so close to each other that their fingers nearly touch. The women see everything with perfect clarity now….

There is longing in the way their hands seem to reach toward one another, the aching almost of it. Bruises bloom on the skin of their arms, delicate blues and greens that could have been painted with watercolour. Except for their necks, which are marked with purple rings. The water seething in and out with the tide means they won’t be preserved for long. Already dense, iridescent clumps of greenhead flies tickle along their limbs, their cheeks, their scalps; the flies’ thick, segmented wings like stained glass. pp vii-viii

Mullen’s writing almost made this a 4.5 star book for me (ie. very good / almost perfect, in my tough world of ratings). But… I found the ending a little confusing. There’s some closure and others may appreciate the way everything’s not wrapped up in a tidy bow, but I couldn’t work out if there was something I’d missed. Something obvious. After I write this I’ll head to Goodreads to see if anyone’s posted any spoilers as I need clarity!!!

So, while Mullen’s pacing and narrative led to an exciting crescendo, I felt kinda stuck there. I didn’t get enough insight into the ‘who’ and ‘why’, which brings my ‘rating’ down. (And why I hate using ratings’ systems.)

I must confess I know nothing about Atlantic City but Mullen pitches it as a dying city. I expected glamour, but perhaps the parts we’re seeing mirror the lives of our characters. No sheen to be seen.

The entire town was like a dreamscape tilted toward nightmare. p 17

… he thinks about the way the whole city is dying around anyone who is left; slowly, though, like a large animal falling to its knees. p 57

And I suspect (though am not clever enough to know) her descriptions of the way the marsh changes is mirrored in the way she describes the city’s evolution. New beginnings not necessarily for the better: a hospital replaced by a casino, old hotels on the boardwalk disappearing and becoming dodgy motels, that are later razed themselves.

But it’s Mullen’s clever use of the voices of the women in the marsh that is truly exquisite. Poignant and bittersweet.

They sense the shift in  the wind during the final stretches of July. They know that this new month will bring warmer water, longer nights, cooler breezes. Then, the ocean will brew storms, hurricanes that surge their way up the coast. Wind that tears at the grass, tides that could scatter them, wash away what’s left.

They think this means they’re running out of time. Time to tell their stories, time to be heard. They plead again for someone to see before it’s too late. p 163

Please See Us by Caitlin Mullen was published in Australia by Simon & Schuster and is now available.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes. 

* NB. My quotes are from an uncorrected (early) proof so may have changed in the final publication.


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