Book review: The Stranger Inside by Lisa Unger

Wednesday, October 9, 2019 Permalink

Lisa Unger’s been one of my go-to authors for more than a decade or so. I think I only discovered her work when she attended the Brisbane Writers’ Festival in 2009, but I’ve read everything she’s written since.

Book review: The Stranger Inside by Lisa UngerThe Stranger Inside
by Lisa Unger
Published by Harper Collins, Harlequin Enterprises ANZ
on September 17th 2019
Source: Harper Collins
Genres: Psychological Thriller
ISBN: 1848457073, 9781489287090
Pages: 400

Twelve-year-old Rain Winter narrowly escaped an abduction while walking to a friend's house. Her two best friends, Tess and Hank, were not as lucky. Tess never came home, and Hank was held in captivity before managing to escape. Their abductor was sent to prison but years later was released. Then someone delivered real justice—and killed him in cold blood.

Now Rain is living the perfect suburban life, her dark childhood buried deep. She spends her days as a stay-at-home mom, having put aside her career as a hard-hitting journalist to care for her infant daughter. But when another brutal murderer who escaped justice is found dead, Rain is unexpectedly drawn into the case. Eerie similarities to the murder of her friends' abductor force Rain to revisit memories she's worked hard to leave behind. Is there a vigilante at work? Who is the next target? Why can't Rain just let it go?

Rain’s an investigative journalist but taking a break after a harrowing trial in which a man, she was sure guilty of killing his wife, was found innocent.

She’s at home with her toddler when she hears the news that – one year later – the man has been murdered in the same way as his wife. The obvious suspects are the family of his wife… honouring her memory. Or seeking revenge. But his murder was cold and calculated. An execution almost.

Rain still has contacts and soon learns that the case has been turned over to the FBI who liken it to two other cases. One involved a man killed a year after being found innocent of murdering a number of young boys. And the other case.. one very personal to Rain – the murder of a man after his release from a psychiatric facility where he’d been housed for 10 years following his arrest for kidnapping and murder.

Rain (Laraine but then known as Lara) was just 12 when a man attempted to kidnap her and a friend Tess. Another friend Hank, saved her and was taken instead. He eventually survived. But… as is often mentioned throughout the book – things like that change you forever. And Rain still lives with survivor’s guilt.

We know who the killer is very early on and Unger makes no attempt to hide their identity. The story unfolds from Rain’s point of view, as well as the killer’s… and (the latter’s) chapters are in first person (or second, as they’re mostly speaking as if to Rain) so we know who they are and what they are thinking. And doing.

Initially I wondered how Unger could sustain any sense of trepidation, let alone suspense given we know the who and why; but much of it hinges on the events of the past and we’re not given all of that information at once. We learn a little more about the attack on Rain, Hank and Tess in fits and starts, though Unger actually shields readers from any gruesome details.

But we know there’s more. There’s something yet to come…

Many who know Rain question why she’s dredging up events of a past she’s worked hard to leave there but there’s also a sense that sometimes we need to own and tell that story in order to move on.

There’s a theme winding through the novel about good vs evil (kinda) and whether killers are made or born. Our killer (our revenge killer) blames their behaviour on their experience. I pondered this later – which is a good sign that I was still thinking about the book after I closed the back cover.

But no. I’m not like them. I wasn’t born, like Kreskey. I didn’t come into the world damaged, my mental illness deepening through trauma and abuse. I don’t seek out innocence and destroy it. I was made, by Kreskey. Now I unmake….

I remove the cancer, even though I have to make a cut to do it. Sometimes we must harm to heal the world. p 155

It’s something Unger refers to, through one of her characters as ‘the stranger inside’, again reflecting on the way one changes after a traumatic event.

Interestingly the book – through its players – offers up conflicting accounts on the nature vs nurture debate; which I think is another good sign as the topic itself is (obviously) not clear-cut. Several of the characters in the book have been victims of abuse, but not all go on to become abusers. Indeed, a young patient of a psychologist featured asks if he will become like his own father, and we’re reminded how little control many of us have over the world as it unfurls around us.

I liked that Unger also (obviously) ponders the whole notion of vengeance / revenge and vigilantism. There’s no ‘black/white’ position. Many of our characters ethically and morally oppose anyone taking the law into their own hands, but there’s still a sense of relief when a doer-of-evil is off the streets. That they’ve got what’s coming to them and – more importantly perhaps – cannot do it again. There’s even mention of the whole cost saving of NOT having to keep them in prison or some other facility.

On the flipside there’s a discussion about karma – which is meant to reflect balance – but often used more in the vein of an  ‘an eye for an eye’ and actually just begetting more violence.

So, this novel from Unger isn’t really an ‘edge of your seat’ thriller. It’s complex. It challenges readers’ thinking. In some ways it asks more questions (at an ethical level) than it answers. But in a good way.

The Stranger Inside by Lisa Unger was published in Australia by Harper Collins and is now available.

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


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