Eliza Clark’s thoughtful follow-up to her debut novel Boy Parts gives readers the opportunity to examine true crime from unexpected angles. Once-celebrated (fictional) journalist Alec Z. Carelli takes a shot at redemption after penning two commercial flops and being implicated in a scandal that hurls him out of public favor. While scouring the internet for an overlooked scoop, he lands on the strange homicide of sixteen-year-old Joan Wilson, murdered by three of her peers in a small, coastal town in the north of England called Crow-on-Sea.
As it turns out, the framework of investigative journalism is an ideal means for examining human behavior and perspective. Clark does many things skillfully in Penance, including her dead-on imitations of obnoxious true crime podcasters and the questions she poses about the ethical ramifications of true crime research. Above all, Clark illustrates the usefulness of straying beyond the by-rote, cut-and-dried victim-perpetrator narrative into the wider web of cause and effect when bringing seemingly bizarre human acts into focus. Somewhere among all that silk lie the pieces of the whole truth, and sifting through it can be the key to restoration. But the more one successfully pans for facts, the more the question transforms from “how could this happen?” to “do I even want to understand?”
Readers will learn immediately that the publication of this book—i.e. the book within the book they are reading, Carelli’s true crime tome about Joan’s death—was met with harsh criticism by those interviewed who either disagreed with Carelli’s methods or with his hypotheses of events. Carelli even includes a few sections dramatizing moments in the lives of people attached to the case, which he explicitly notes are products of his own imagination, based on facts he has gathered. According to him, these sections are meant to connect the emotional dots between key happenings in the lead-up to Joan’s death. Although Carelli is upfront about the nature of these passages, and you can easily identify the exact information he has used to create them, the mere presence of these chapters is one of the aspects of his finished book that those involved with the case have taken issue with. The boldness of theorizing about another human being’s life—something many of us do, even when those in question are neither criminals or victims—and in print, no less, is regarded as either benign or heinous, sometimes both, depending on who you are. But typically these speculations are, at the very least, implied to be the gospel truth, with a wink and a nudge, by the one reporting it. So why should it be just as troublesome to openly admit that you are only guessing?
Carelli reconstructs each teenaged perpetrator’s life through interviews with those who were close to them, along with their social media communications and other ill-gotten pieces of info. The more these characters’ histories unfurl, the more the perceived necessity, especially in adolescence, of silently maintaining social farces becomes apparent; so, too, how this can reasonably lead to an outcome far beyond what anyone is initially prepared for. Whether it be within the hierarchy of a group, the relationship dynamics between pairs of individuals, or the identities assumed by members of digital communities, there is a falseness that requires unspoken agreement from all involved to sustain it.
For instance, Angelica Stirling-Stewart, one of the three convicted killers, comes from a wealthy, politically conservative household in which she is favored above her half-sister by their father because she presents in a way that is considered “normal”: blonde, pretty, white, with no discernible interest in any off-beat subcultures. She transitions from bullying other girls she and her best friend consider ugly or weird in primary school—including the victim and one of the other convicted killers—to being bullied by her own so-called friends in secondary school. She puts up with this for as long as she does because she considers her secondary school friend-group to be “A-Tier”––the most popular girls and thus the most beneficial to befriend. But once their treatment of her spills over from gentle teasing into outright humiliation, Angelica’s not-so-secret status as “most hated friend” becomes impossible to ignore. So she breaks away and forms new friendships, which eventually leads to Joan’s disturbing demise.
As a reader, watching the bully become the bullied has the uncomfortable effect of satisfying one’s sense of justice while also provoking sympathy. This happens to varying degrees with each girl responsible for Joan’s death, and with Joan herself. As new information comes to light, feelings, about who bears the most responsibility and who deserves what karmic retribution, fluctuate. It’s a fine line to walk, but Clark does so expertly—never leaning too far in one direction or another when it comes to any of the girls—with the apparent intent of highlighting individual investment in our own version of the truth, even when it comes to people we see everyday.
One of Clark’s most compelling examples of this is a character we never meet: Connor, the older brother of a girl falsely accused of being involved in Joan’s death. The Spencers, unfortunate descendants of men active in the criminal underworld, are the black sheep of Crow-on-Sea. Jayde and her brother Connor were both diagnosed with ADHD as children, but their teachers don’t show them much compassion, instead choosing to believe in their own preconceived notions about the Spencers as a family of troublemakers. When interviewed about her and her brother’s experiences at school, Jayde admits to having had a hard time. Her mother, Diana, spoke fervently in her own interview about her son’s poor treatment at school. When Jayde says to Carelli that her brother “was a bully,” Diana immediately refutes it. Then, when Jayde gives examples of his bullying behavior, her mother replies, “they called him stupid, they were probably asking for it, but nobody ever mentions that.” “Nobody,” including the daughter who actually attended school alongside Connor and saw for herself what he did.
For those of us not personally affected by a violent crime, the why can become the stuff of legend, as intriguing as the how. We want to know the motive, to judge for ourselves whether or not the reason is good enough. We want to weigh in, to somehow make the event about ourselves. But Penance underscores what seems most important to those who are irrevocably connected to both victims and perpetrators: it happened, and there is no taking it back. After everything, far from granting relief, unrelenting attempts by spectators to answer the question why are likely to inflame.
By Eliza Clark
Published September 26, 2023
Gianni Washington has a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from The University of Surrey. Her writing can be found in L'Esprit Literary Review, West Trade Review, Litromagazine.com, and in the horror anthology Brief Grislys, among other places. Her debut collection of short fiction, Flowers from the Void, is forthcoming from Clash Books (US) and Serpent's Tail (UK) in Spring 2024.