A Book Review: See How Small/Scott Blackwood
Fiction winner 2016 Pen Center USA Literary Awards
Published by HarperCollins Fourth Estate
When I first heard that Scott Blackwood was going to write something based on the unsolved 1991 murders of a group of teenaged girls in Austin, Texas, I thought, oh no, leave it alone. We’ve all had enough. Because after that infamous crime, for years, we all saw those girls’ faces on a billboard and on TV, with a message offering a reward for information leading to the killers. The victims’ faces are with me still. I was once a teenager in that city. I had friends who worked at ice cream shops as teenagers. It could have been us.
We have always lived here, though we pretend we’ve just arrived, say the three murdered teenaged girls, as they relive the scene of their deaths. Thus begins this mesmerizing novel.
Blackwood’s style is impressionistic and at the same time, feels very real.
In short chapters, he focuses on the community and its devastating loss at the time of the crime and beyond. His words and images are delicate and exact in their ability to dust away the cobwebs of memory, or to slice the scab off the characters, to reveal their raw emotions. To cut to the truth and to the guilt that city felt at not being able to help.
Perhaps the most pitch perfect and awaited voices are those of the dead. We hear the thoughts of Elizabeth and Zadie and Meredith like snatches of a love song. At one point a character recognizes their three spirits up in a tree drinking wine coolers at an outdoor theater production: That there’s a piss-poor performance, jokes Elizabeth, as the girls critique the show. Then she says, Someone is watching us. Meredith adds, Or our memories of what might have been, given a little more time.
We grieve with Kate, the mother of two of the girls, as she remembers their hair, their smells, their summery arms. We are traumatized with Jack, a fireman who discovered the bodies in the burning building; we yearn with the journalist Rosa who wants to solve and tell the story; we are confused with Hollis, a mentally-injured military veteran who may have seen the murderers; we are haunted with Michael, a troubled youth who is an accomplice in the crime. We see witnesses sane and wounded, and the evil itself.
Blackwood masterfully blends the various characters and their lives together, and if just a second here or there feels abrupt, the pause mirrors life’s own missteps.
Terrifying and soothing, this novel made me grateful that Blackwood tackled this tragedy.
This book becomes an atonement, reconciling the dead and the living—survivors all. It heals us with moments of grace. For we are with the murdered girls and we see through the glass darkly. In one scene, when a mother matches socks in the laundry room and suddenly believes she smells her dead daughters’ perfume, the girls themselves say,
See? . . . See how small a thing it is that keeps us apart?