This is a difficult review to write. Not because I’m undecided about S.K. Barnett’s Safe. In fact, it’s one of the best mystery/thrillers I’ve read recently. (The book has already been optioned for a film by DreamWorks.) Revealing too much of the plot will spoil the experience for future readers. To say there are twists and turns in Safe is an understatement. Just when I thought I knew where it was going, it veered wildly. And then again. And to end with Thelma and Louise, well, what could be better.
But, of course, I have to give some information about the plot and Barnett selected one sure to hit a nerve. Reports of missing children never fail to trigger a visceral reaction. It’s the reason parents hover and get hysterical when a child is out of their sight for even a nanosecond. After a child is snatched, we imagine what that innocent, defenseless soul might be experiencing. Barnett pulls no punches in Safe including what some evil people are capable of dishing out.
At 10:30 a.m. on July 10, 2007, six year-old Jennifer Kristal disappeared. Her mom, Laurie, watched for a few minutes as Jenny skipped down the front steps of her home and began walking to her friend, Toni’s front door, only two houses away. When Laurie called Toni’s house at 3 p.m., she found out that Jenny had never shown up. Police were called, neighbors joined the search. Soon, posters began to show up all over town. But as the days, weeks, months, and, yes, years passed, Jenny became just another missing child. Despite the efforts of a determined police detective, the case went cold.
Meanwhile, Laurie, her husband, Jake, and their son, Ben, were left to deal with the aftermath. Ben, two years older than Jenny, was hit the hardest. He began to act out in class. His parents made the decision to send him to a strict Catholic school where he could get treatment that included serious medication. By the time he was in high school, Ben’s new normal was smoking too much pot, hanging out with friends, and ignoring his parents.
Then the unimaginable happens. Jenny comes home. Now 18, she walks into her home town, startled by the faded poster still tacked up outside a pizza parlor. Dressed in a tan jacket and dirty jeans, she leans against a car, trying to catch her breath. When a woman asks if she needs help, she says: “I’m Jenny Kristal and I need a policeman.”
Two officers – a man and a woman – take Jenny to the station for questioning. Then the phone call to Jenny’s mother: “I don’t want you to get your hopes too high, but there’s someone here claiming to be your daughter.” Laurie faints, Jake advises caution, and when Ben finally gets home and meets Jenny, he’s not thrilled. Laurie tells Jenny Ben needs time to grasp that she’s back. But Ben makes his feelings clear to Jenny one evening after nearly every Kristal relative who lives nearby comes over to celebrate. He doesn’t believe she’s Jenny.
Also doubting Jenny’s story are two FBI agents, Hesse and Klein. Jenny says she called the couple who kidnapped her Father and Mother. They were constantly on the move, but their last place was a trailer in a remote area. The FBI finds the trailer, but as Jenny predicted, Father and Mother were long gone.
Is Jenny really Jenny? That question does get answered a quarter of the way through the book, but the plot just gets more complicated. And just when Jenny begins to feel she is safe, she begins getting messages that she’s not. Everyone has secrets in Safe and nothing is what it seems. I raced through the book. You will, too.
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