I’ve not read Sulari Gentill’s popular Rowland Sinclair series given I tend to stay away from historical fiction but I absolutely adored the Ned Kelly award-winning After She Wrote Him, which I read in 2020, also known as Crossing the Lines.
It was a complete mindf*ck in many ways, but rather than find it frustrating I thought it incredibly clever and kinda jealous that I’d never be able to think of anything quite so complex and twisted.
Thankfully Gentill does it again in her latest release, The Woman in the Library. Again it’s about a writer. Or rather two writers and one – or maybe both – are using the other’s life as inspiration. And just to make things twistier, one of the writers is actually writing about a writer and events taking place in her life and those she meets.
The Woman in the Library
by Sulari Gentill
Published by Poisoned Pen Press, Ultimo Press
Source: Ultimo Press
Genres: Thriller / Suspense
The ornate reading room at the Boston Public Library is quiet, until the tranquility is shattered by a woman's terrified scream.
Security guards take charge immediately, instructing everyone inside to stay put until the threat is identified and contained. While they wait for the all-clear, four strangers sitting at the same table, pass the time in conversation and friendships are struck.
Each has his or her own reasons for being in the reading room that morning—it just happens that one is a murderer.
The book opens with Leo – a wannabe author, writing to fellow author Hannah, who he admires but hasn’t met. I assumed the pair were acquainted as he’s fairly familiar – deferential in that slightly wanky way fans feel they need to be – but also seemingly a colleague, a contemporary rather than an overzealous reader.
And it seems the feeling is mutual as Hannah sends Leo chapters of her novel for feedback. She’s in Australia and the novel is set in the US, so Leo’s offering advice on relevance, language, and feasibility.
And he’s chuffed that Hannah uses some of his suggestions, or indeed some of his observations, in her novel. Leo discusses his own work a little and Hannah even offers to have her agent look at his work.
Leo’s feedback becomes increasingly critical however and his tone goes from fervent to annoyed and back to the deferential admiration… if Hannah’s plot is moving in a direction of which he approves.
We actually only see his correspondence to Hannah, which is interspersed with chapters of her novel. We only hear her voice through her novel so we’re unsure how similar she is to her protagonist Winifred (Freddie).
Hannah’s novel is actually written in first person and features Freddie, an Australian in the US and who happens across three other students while at the Boston Library at the time someone is killed. The murder brings them together and they form a bond of sorts. We later realise their presence at the library was the result of some coincides and have to ask ourselves if their meeting was (perhaps) contrived and to what end game.
The murder of the woman at the library is – of course – the crux of the novel within the novel, but it plays out against the backdrop of Leo’s correspondence with Hannah as she writes.
Again, Gentill carries this off brilliantly and and it’s well-paced with a sense of menace building as the stories unfold – both the novel Hannah’s writing as well as the communication and relationship between Leo and Hannah.
Gentill’s writing is seamless but the characters and the plot are the stars here. And did I mention it’s clever? Not only the premise itself but the way everything unfolds (or should I say unravels?!) at the end.
The review copy I received from Australian publishers Ultimo Press came with a little mystery all of its own. We were given a set of cards featuring the main characters and a page in the book marked with a STOP sticker and we had to guess whodunnit. I’m not sure if the STOP stickers were all in the same place but mine was just after an incident where something is attributed to the wrong person. But because I’d remembered a little more detail I figured there was a reason for the erroneous finger-pointing… So, I guessed correctly! But I must confess I didn’t really work out the ‘why’ so that was a nice surprise.
The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill will be published in Australia by Ultimo Press in early June 2022.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.