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TELL EVERYTHING

By Sally Cooper

Dundurn, 240 pages, $21.99

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On Sufjan Stevens's critically acclaimed album Illinois, there is a song that sounds like a lullaby. The first time I heard the song was in a crowded room. I couldn't catch the lyrics, so checked the iPod. The title? John Wayne Gacy, Jr., after the notorious Chicago serial killer. Shocked by the contrast, I listened more closely and heard Gacy's story, filled with intimate and horrific details of his life and crimes.

Sally Cooper's second novel, Tell Everything, is compelling in a similar way. It is lyrical, intimate and horrifying. The story starts when Pauline sees a mug shot in the newspaper of Ramona, her old friend and neighbour, who is charged with murdering her husband James. During the course of their investigation, police learned that Ramona and James sexually abused many female victims in their home.

Pauline knows that she will be called to testify during Ramona's murder trial, and to face questions that she has tried to suppress in the years since. Was Ramona a victim or predator? Was Pauline a victim or willing participant? The novel follows Pauline through the ordeal of testifying at the trial and reliving the darkest period of her life in a search for answers.

Readers will be reminded of the 1993 trial of Karla Homolka, convicted for assisting Paul Bernardo in the slayings of young women. Cooper slowly peels back layers in search of the real lives and motivations behind the media maelstrom of a sensational trial. In a world that prefers clear answers, this is a bold attempt to show how roles can be blurred. She uses the complicated relationship between Ramona and Pauline to show how the predator might also be a victim, or how the victim might play a part in her capture. By exploring these grey areas while holding a firm moral line on what constitutes abuse, Cooper has achieved an impressive and delicate balance.

Tell Everything is the follow-up to Cooper's first novel, Love Object. Based in Hamilton, she teaches writing at Humber College. Her love of language is evident, with playful and imaginative descriptions such as that of Pauline's father, Hank, "a name that comes out like a swear," and of the surroundings, especially the community of Brampton: "Isolation made sense here."

Pauline's first impression of her new room, which was carefully reassembled by her father to be just like her old room, is not of familiarity, rather it's "a reminder of what had irretrievably gone." Imagination, however, is stretched too far on occasion. Descriptions of eyes as "clear pools of unexpected, inane light," or heat in a body like "a dense, endless, mattress," are imaginative at the expense of clarity.

There are a few places where characters slip, such as the passage where Pauline quotes psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis and the dictionary, which sound like a writer taking notes. But problems aside, this book is written with feeling. By plunging deep into a difficult subject, Cooper takes a bold approach that allows her to craft a story that is both sensitive and insightful.

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At the end of his song about Gacy, Stevens sings, "I am just like him." It's not true. Stevens is not a serial killer, nor is Cooper a sexual predator. But they both show us the human side of these crimes, rather than taking the simpler route of dismissing the perpetrators as monsters.

Far from glamorizing the crimes, they show how you might be able to understand the motivations for these crimes and, if you look down deep, a part of you might be able to relate - or to find them in yourself , a far more terrifying insight.

Ultimately, Tell Everything is about the connection between murder and love. It's an unsettling subject, full of abuse, sexual deviance and violence. For those who don't flinch and enjoy diving into the psychology of a crime, it is ultimately successful, if not perfectly executed, in suggesting the very human motivations behind horrific crimes.

Claire Cameron's first novel, The Line Painter, was published last year.

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