A Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo

Jess Wong is Angie Redmond’s best friend. And that’s the most important thing, even if Angie can’t see how Jess truly feels. Being the girl no one quite notices is OK with Jess anyway. While nobody notices her, she’s free to watch everyone else. But when Angie begins to fall for Margot Adams, a girl from the nearby boarding school, Jess can see it coming a mile away. Suddenly her powers of observation are more curse than gift.

As Angie drags Jess further into Margot’s circle, Jess discovers more than her friend’s growing crush. Secrets and cruelty lie just beneath the carefree surface of this world of wealth and privilege, and when they come out, Jess knows Angie won’t be able to handle the consequences.

When the inevitable darkness finally descends, Angie will need her best friend.

“It doesn’t even matter that she probably doesn’t understand how much she means to me. It’s purer this way. She can take whatever she wants from me, whenever she wants it, because I’m her best friend.”

A Line in the Dark is a story of love, loyalty, and murder.
So, A Line in the Dark is a very good contemporary story about the complicated relationship between two queer young women, centered around one awkward, flawed, complicated girl.

As the thriller I was expecting? Kind of a let-down.

There’s a dissonance between these two sides, marked prominently by a mid-book shift in narrative style. The first half is told in first person present tense by our protagonist, Jess, and focuses on the implosion of her relationship with her best friend Angie, over Angie’s cagey new girlfriend, Margot.

The second half is split between Jess’ narration in third person present tense and transcripts of police interviews with various characters about the night one of their friends was murdered.

It’s an…interesting shift. I enjoyed the inclusion of the transcripts – I’m always up for some epistolary shit, and it was a good opportunity to see characters outside of Jess’ filter – but I was less fond of the change in perspective and focus. I suspect that the idea was to put some distance between Jess and the reader in order to make her seem like a more viable suspect, but I think that that and the shift in focus to the whodunit came at the cost of a more interesting dark contemporary.

It’s a shame, too, because the book is really good as a dark contemporary. I mentioned it a little bit in the beginning, but Jess is a fantastically complex protagonist: in love with her best friend, but utterly incapable of expressing it in anything remotely resembling a healthy way.

Jess is a firestorm of specific, viscerally relatable details. She’s surly and awkward and insecure, wrapped around a deep core of self-loathing. She’s so stuck on all of the things that make her “undesirable” and “unworthy” and “ugly” that she can’t even acknowledge her friend’s very obvious reciprocal crush, and instead martyrs herself in a Friend Zone of her own making.

“It doesn’t even matter that she probably doesn’t understand how much she means to me. It’s purer this way. She can take whatever she wants from me, whenever she wants it, because I’m her best friend.”
There’s a reason that that line is quoted on the back cover copy – that’s Jess’s view of Angie-and-Jess in a nutshell. Angie is the center of Jess’ universe, her one lifeline to the world outside her head, so of course when competition for Angie’s attention arises, Jess can only express her discomfort in unhelpful and destructive ways.

The story is told from Jess’ perspective, and we’re allowed to empathize with her even when she’s making terrible decisions, which is fucking fantastic. I am so here for imperfect female characters, and Lo allows them to be imperfect and make mistakes without rushing to narratively justify them.

This actually applies to all of the characters – they all got a pretty fair shake, even ones that I worried might be uncritically villainized, like Margot, or pedestalized, like Angie. I should have known to expect better from Lo. Everyone is humanized and/or called out on their shit.

I realize that I’ve been talking a lot about Jess’ worse qualities because that’s kind of where this book lives, but I don’t want to give the impression that that’s all she is. She’s also smart, tough, talented, and loyal, it’s just that it’s so rare to see darker emotions sympathetically portrayed, particularly in queer teens of color, and that’s where this book is it’s most absorbing.

Which is why I kind of wish it hadn’t bothered with the whodunit.

VAGUE SPOILERS THAT COULD STILL BE CONSIDERED SPOILERS

I don’t like the distance from Jess in the second half, and I’m not a fan of how rushed the twist ending seems. A character confesses at the end of a chapter, and then there’s an epilogue showing how the other characters are handling it, and then one final stinger scene that shows what really happened.

It’s a weird sort of anti-climax – there’s no time for the readers to see the characters process what happened; it’s just bam, reveal, over. On the flip side, because of where that stinger scene takes place chronologically, the whole second half of the book is the characters processing what happened, we just don’t know it.

It might be something that works better on a second read, when you have context for the interactions after the murder, but on the first go it was extremely abrupt and unsatisfying.

So yeah I mean, I liked a lot of what was going on here. The writing is good, the prologue is a killer hook, and it’s worth reading for Jess and her relationships alone, especially if you’re a fan of complicated women.

Just be prepared for that ending.

three stars


 

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