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Book Reviews Review: A young woman’s disappearance is investigated in Amy Stuart’s impressive debut, Still Mine

Title
Still Mine
Author
Amy Stuart
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
Simon & Schuster Canada
Pages
311
Price
$24.99

When Clare O'Dey arrives in Blackmore, a remote mountain community, in the opening pages of Toronto writer Amy Stuart's debut novel Still Mine, she is greeted with suspicion. The residents don't believe that the young woman is a nature photographer. Rather, they assume she is a police officer or detective, sent to infiltrate the community to try to find Shayna Fowles, a young woman who has disappeared under suspicious circumstances.

They're half right.

Clare O'Dey isn't a nature photographer, but she isn't any sort of trained investigator either. And her name isn't Clare O'Dey.

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Clare has actually disappeared herself, fleeing from a violent marriage into a half-life of assumed names, motel stays and short-term jobs, trying to stay one step ahead of the husband she is sure is pursuing her. She has come to Blackmore to try to find Shayna Fowles, whose background – a volatile marriage, a history of substance abuse problems – bears a striking resemblance to her own.

As Still Mine unfolds, Clare finds herself drawn into the life of the community, once prosperous, now dying in the wake of a disaster that shuttered the mine and created deep rifts between once-close families. Clare throws herself into the heart of this division, becoming acquainted – to varying degrees – with people on opposing sides, including Shayna's parents; the curiously, and perhaps dangerously, charming local drug dealer; the noble town doctor, whose attentiveness begins to seem disconcerting, and others.

While Clare's investigation into Shayna's disappearance is the main through-line of the novel, it is also the weakest, and least significant, portion of Still Mine; as a mystery, it's familiar territory, with a solution that is loudly telegraphed through the novel (signals even a casual mystery reader will receive loud and clear). As a thriller, Still Mine is fairly perfunctory, with familiarity breeding a sense of comfort, rather than tension: Clare gets into trouble, and the reader never feels much doubt that she'll get out of it. Read solely on the level of a mystery or thriller, Still Mine satisfies, but only just.

That seems, however, to be by design: The heart of Still Mine isn't the mystery of Shayna's disappearance, but the mystery of Clare herself. As she investigates the citizens of Blackmore, the reader is investigating Clare, piecing together snippets and hints to uncover not only the story of her marriage and her flight, but also the truth of her character.

Clare is not only difficult to like at times, but is – more significantly – difficult to relate to, a cardinal sin for a fictional character. There are several points in the novel when Clare's actions in her investigation are so ridiculously wrong-headed, most readers will be stunned. Why the strange intimacy with Charlie Merritt, for example, who is introduced as resembling the husband from whom she is running? Why, more generally, does she take the risks she does, risks even the most amateurish of amateur sleuths would know to avoid? The answers, when they come, are subtle and disconcerting, forcing the reader to reframe their experience and understanding of the previous sections of the novel.

It's a risky approach to storytelling, and considerably to Stuart's credit: Still Mine manages to have it both ways. It works as a serviceable thriller, one which will satisfy while breaking little new ground for the form, while simultaneously subverting those forms in service to a deeper mystery, one which in turn casts new light not only on Clare's actions, but on Shayna's disappearance itself. It's not always as smooth a process as it could be: There are points in the early pages where Clare's actions defy not only understanding but acceptance, and if some readers abandon the book at that point, it's hard to fault them. But for those who press on, Still Mine slowly reveals itself to be an impressive debut, rooted in character rather than trope, in fundamental understanding rather than rote puzzle-solving.

Robert J. Wiersema's most recent novel is Black Feathers.

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