Welcome to the Hotel Meroe

Reckless Girls by Rachel Hawkins

r/suggestmeabook: I want to be stuck on a small and spooky desert island with two rich boys, two girls linked by tragedy, and two girls who are in relationships with the rich boys.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 320

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

ARC provided by NetGalley

Publication date: 1/4/2022

Contemporary psychological thriller

From the publisher: Six stunning twentysomethings are about to embark on a blissful, free-spirited journey—one filled with sun-drenched days and intoxicating nights. But as it becomes clear that the group is even more cut off from civilization than they initially thought, it starts to feel like the island itself is closing in, sending them on a dangerous spiral of discovery.

I happen to be going through a phase of revisiting The Eagles, my favorite band when I was in high school, and as soon as I sat down to write this review, “Hotel California” went through my head. For me, that song encapsulates the mood of Rachel Hawkins’s Reckless Girls (and if it’s ever adapted to film, I want credit for the song being used in the movie).

I was excited to read this new book from Hawkins, having really enjoyed The Woman Upstairs. The writing, again, is clean and clear, and Hawkins definitely knows how to create an atmosphere of increasing dread. In many ways, this is a feminist book, looking at how women find themselves defined by the relationships they’re in and how trapped they can become, economically, by those relationships.

Dreams were for people with money and time, people who didn’t feel hollowed out from watching the only person who loved them die in agony. Dreams for people who had choices, opportunities. I didn’t believe I had any of those things.

Rachel Hawkins, Reckless Girls

The island of Meroe serves almost as a character in the book, malevolent and always lurking in the background, which is emphasized by the periodic “postings” included in the book; these postings warn of the weirdness of the island. This Meroe Island, however, appears to be completely fictional, as the Google search only turned up an island belonging to India and an archeological site on the Nile. (A search of my public libraries databases didn’t do me any better.) The fictional history is that it was named after the 1822 wreck of the HMS Meroe, a frigate whose survivors met mysterious ends on the island, including possibly being sacrificed to feed others.

North West Beach. Henderson Island (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland).  © UNESCO, Ron Van Oers

It sounds much like some of the facts of the Essex shipwreck, which inspired Moby Dick by Herman Melville. In that case, though, the three crew members who elected to stay on the island did better than those who sailed on (which is where the cannibalism happened) and the vessel in question was a whaler rather than a frigate. At any rate, there were sufficient shipwrecks on atolls with grisly overtones that Meroe Island of the book resonates as a real place.

The protagonist, Lux, is trying to figure out what she wants to do about her life. She left home with Nico, a rich boy with a boat, to travel the world, but they only got as far as Hawaii, and now she’s beginning to worry about the future. Her recent past was full of pain, and that trauma informs the story. Lux’s trauma, as well as that of other characters, is something others fail to recognize, acknowledge, or feel; and yet Lux feels like she should keep it to herself, as if she’s not entitled to support and understanding. This divide between the traumatized and those who appear to live golden lives free of trauma and want is another theme Hawkins explores.

The truth is, when your world is falling apart, you stop having ‘a thing.’ You get so focused on just making through each day that ‘interests’ or ‘ambitions’ kind of go out the window. You definitely don’t have time for passions.

Rachel Hawkins, Reckless Girls

It’s definitely an unsettling book, and even at the close I still felt unsettled. I’m not sure I like that feeling, but if that was what Hawkins was trying to achieve, she succeeded. The deception of beauty, from the island itself to some of the characters, is a part of what makes it unsettling—what we generally use as a way to keep ourselves safe, judging both places and people by appearances, can have fatal consequences.

And with people like that—people you meet on the road—there’s no real past and no real future. It can all be a glorious present where Eliza can be anyone she wants. She doesn’t have to tell people that her mum is in prison, doesn’t have to confess to the wasted years on wasted men and wasted opportunities.

Rachel Hawkins, Reckless Girls

Reckless Girls is more solid evidence that Rachel Hawkins is an author to watch for deliciously scary thrillers with deep themes; I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.


Not your lit class’s Jane Eyre

Prepublication Big5+ review of The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins

r/suggestmeabook: I want a thriller inspired by Jane Eyre narrated by a not-unwarrantedly suspicious, impoverished alumna of the foster care system.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 304

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Publication date: 1/5/2021

From the publisher: Meet Jane. Newly arrived to Birmingham, Alabama, Jane is a broke dog-walker in Thornfield Estates––a gated community full of McMansions, shiny SUVs, and bored housewives. The kind of place where no one will notice if Jane lifts the discarded tchotchkes and jewelry off the side tables of her well-heeled clients. Where no one will think to ask if Jane is her real name.

In the rivalry between Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights (which I get), just as passionate as the Star Wars vs. Star Trek arguments (which I don’t), I’m definitely a Jane Eyre girl, so this new novel got my attention quite quickly. Rachel Hawkins’s clever reworking of Jane Eyre is an homage to the original but manages to be fresh. She’s not just dressing up the classic in modern clothes, but picking and choosing elements to create a new and fascinating whodunit. 

The reworking also forces you to think of things that were formerly hidden behind Charlotte Brontë‘s polite Victorian prose. Foster homes of her period were no kinder then than now, and the soot filled past obscures much of the permanent damage the original Jane would have sustained from her environment. Brontë’s novel was ground-breaking at the time, and does not portray Jane’s childhood as rosy, but the consciousness of what was done is different, probably because we actually discuss the effects of trauma more openly now than then.

I don’t miss the hard look in her eyes. One thing growing up in the foster system has taught me was to watch people’s eyes more than you listened to what they said. Mouths were good at lying, but eyes usually told the truth.

Rachel Hawkins, The Wife Upstairs

Like the original, it’s a first-person narrative; unlike the original, it’s not just Jane we here from. Bea (Bertha’s nickname) is also heard from, and even Eddie gets a turn at the mike. The multiple points of view are well-marked and separate, adding rather than detracting from the story. It’s a little odd (and jolting) when the text shifts from first- to third-person in Bea’s sections, but the publisher has used italics to separate the two perspectives, so they’re easy to follow. I think I’d have preferred to have those first person as well, realizing Bea might be an unreliable narrator, but it works well enough in Hawkins’s capable prose.

Mrs. Reed looks sympathetic. She looks like she absolutely hates that I have to walk her collie, Bear, on a cold and stormy day in mid-February.

She looks like she actually gives a fuck about me as a person.

She doesn’t though, which is fine, really.

It’s not like I give a fuck about her either.

Rachel Hawkins, The Wife Upstairs

Jane’s discussion of privilege, in the sense of wealth and education, is deft. It’s enough to make you aware of the issues of class without descending into an overt morality play. The role her formative years had in her ability to trust pervades the narrative, making her understandably cautious. This was a prime example of a character giving you a way into a different perspective and making actions you might ordinarily find morally indefensible suddenly becoming, if not justified, at least understandable.

Wanting things? Sure. that’s been a constant in my life, my eyes catching the sparkle of something expensive on a wrist, around a neck; pictures of dream houses taped to my bedroom wall instead of whatever prepubescent boy girls my age were supposed to be interested in.

But I’ve been dodging men’s hands since I was twelve, so wishing a man would touch me is a novel experience.

Rachel Hawkins, The Wife Upstairs

The world in which the story unfolds is well built. Hawkins chooses her details well, and you can viscerally feel the comfortable, elegant, and monied world. It’s also a very Southern world, set in Birmingham, Alabama, where Southern Living is the magazine of choice and magnolias and gossip framed in sympathy. It’s a very white world, though, which surprised me a little, knowing the demographics. But the setting is a wealthy, white microcosm, so I personally didn’t find it problematic.

She’s been gone nearly a year, but the arrangement of lilies and magnolias on the front table of my house were hers, and every time I walk past them, it’s like I’ve just missed seeing her, that she’s just stepped out for a second.

Rachel Hawkins, The Wife Upstairs

The novel moves along at a nice clip, but still allows things to unravel slowly enough to build tension. The story jumps along timelines, but Hawkins is always in control of them, so there’s never a moment when you’re confused about when you are.

Overall, a masterful book that even a Wuthering Heights fan might love.