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A gripping debut novel on true crime obsession

Penance by Eliza Clark is not a read for the faint-hearted. It tells the story of Joan Wilson, a teenager tortured and burnt to death by three other schoolgirls on the night of the Brexit vote. Joan Wilson is, mercifully, not a real person. Clark has produced what one reviewer describes as an untrue – that is to say, made-up – true crime story. The character Clark invents to tell this tale is Alec Z. Carelli, a disgraced journalist on the hunt for a scandal sensational enough to fill a whole book and to help him rebuild his career in the true crime universe.

Carelli is not, it’s safe to say, a reliable narrator. But, don’t worry, that’s not really a spoiler. Penance’s blurb lets the cat out of the bag before the first page is even turned with its somewhat trite parting line: “The only question is: how much of it is true?”. Alas, I think there was definitely a missed opportunity for Clark to actually take readers by surprise with Carelli’s lack of integrity and generally sinister character.

Nevertheless, Penance is a gripping read that weaves together an impressive range of made-up media: from podcast transcripts to text messages, Tumblr content to prison ‘correspondence’ (you’ll find out why that word is in quotation marks if you read the book…).

I was struck by the vividness – and frightening accuracy – with which Clark captured the unique ways that teenage girls can be absolutely horrible to one another, particularly in the digital age. In this case, the everyday routine of social torture turns to literal torture and ends in unspeakable wickedness. Indeed, Clark has a peripheral character, a friend of Joan Wilson’s, comment that she has found “comfort in the idea of the banality of evil”, a concept she learnt about in GCSE history.

Penance speaks to bigger social and cultural questions: most obviously, it interrogates society’s obsession with true crime, doing so in a way that is nuanced and bypasses moralistic sermonising. The elephant in the room is that the murder occurs on Brexit night: this is partly a plot device used to explain why Joan’s murder wasn’t widely covered in the news; but it also evokes a lot of interlinked questions about class, exclusion and unreliable narratives.

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Eliza Clark is definitely one to watch. If you haven’t read her debut, Boy Parts, yet then pick that up first. It’s even sharper, stranger and perhaps more transgressive than Penance.

Penance by Eliza Clark is published by Faber & Faber, 304 pages.

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