Erin Kelly walks a fine line in He Said/She Said, not unlike the corona which briefly rings the moon during a solar eclipse. Like that uncanny phenomenon, a perfectly coiled thriller is brought about via a spooky sense of balance. Throw in too many layers of conspiracy and coincidence, and the book takes on an amateur tone. Write too few moments of shock and surprise, and the narrative falls flat..
Kelly only falls into the former problem—which is the better one to have!—for one brief moment at the novel’s end. Other than that, this work’s biggest misstep is the title, whose prosaicness hides a worthy thriller.
Set in the insular community of people who travel great distances to observe eclipses, He Said/She Said possesses characters bound together by violence at a solar eclipse festival. Kit has chased eclipses for his entire life; Laura is there to see her first one. As both wander the Cornwall countryside looking for any break in the clouds blocking their view, they move away from the crowd until they stumble upon Beth—just as a man is getting off of her. For the next 16 years, Kit and Laura will become inextricably intertwined with Beth and the story of her attacker.
Following her alleged rapist’s guilty charge, Beth ingratiates herself with Kit and Laura—now a couple—in their London walkup. As Beth begins to appear unstable and potentially dangerous, the pair question which of her actions are the result of trauma and which are the result of mental illness. When a glass shard finds its way into Kit’s foot and a fire almost burns him and Laura alive, the couple goes into hiding.
Kelly’s writing proves fast, and though studded throughout with bits of rhetorical flair like pearls, this easy read is suited to beaches and airplanes and nights on the patio. Her narrative pivot is reminiscent of Gillian Flynn—and this is meant to be hugely complimentary—although He Said/She Said lacks the graphic violence and sadistic glint of Flynn’s books. It’s to Kelly’s credit that she incorporates such an obviously romantic device as an eclipse, yet resists the urge to wallow in it.
By hinging the novel’s suspense not on the guilt or innocence of the attacker but on the motivations of the three people who witnessed his crime, Kelly weaves a story with emotional weight. A pair of twists, which are not relatable in a review lest the surprises be spoiled, rotates guilt and absolution between the characters. Everyone involved has a black mark next to his or her name; the question is, whose is blackest?
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayis, and book/art critic based in Chicago. A former book critic for The Myrtle Beach Sun News, his work can be seen in Hazlitt, Sports Illustrated, The Chicago Reader, VICE Sports, The Creators Project, Sports on Earth and New American Paintings, among numerous other publications. You can find him on Twitter or at his website.