Book Review: A Guide for Murdered Children by Sarah Sparrow (2018)

March 20th, 2018 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Somewhere, A Unicorn Is Crying

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence, including the rape, torture, and murder of children.)

For the children, when your time is done, it is VERY important to THANK YOUR LANDLORD—they’ve been such CARING roommates!!! Remember, without THEM, you would never have been able to have your moment of balance. For the landlords, when YOUR time is done, THANK your BODY!!! (For the wonderful times it provided.) NEVER FORGET that it gave you so much more time than your child-tenants had! And THANK the FRIENDS and FAMILY that you LOVED . . . and thank this beautiful BLUE EARTH. — from “The End” (the Guidebook)

— 2.5 stars —

Something strange and awesome is happening in the small town of Saggerty Falls, Michigan – and in towns both large and small all over the world (presumably). The spirits of murdered children (“tenants”) are returning to this beautiful blue earth, temporarily inhabiting the bodies of recently deceased adults (“landlords”) in order to exact revenge (the “moment of balance”) on their killers. They are guided through this adventure by a psychic mentor (“porter”) – in this case, one Annie Ballendine, a former teacher who was institutionalized after she began to hear voices. Annie was rescued and trained by Jasper, the porter before her; and, as her cancer returns, Annie knows that the time is nearing for her pass the baton to her successor. But how will she find this person, while also dealing with the “haywire” events that presage a Porter’s passing?

Depending on how compassionately the narrative is crafted, rape revenge stories are some of my favorites (quite possibly because rape carries so few consequences for the perpetrators here in the real world. Fiction is often much more satisfying.) Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species has become the gold standard for me; Alex Craft is the ultimate antihero, and the book does an exemplary job deconstructing rape culture. I envisioned the titular murdered children as miniature Dexter Morgans-in-training, crammed into the meatsuits of unsuspecting (but ultimately game) adult humans. Like Alex, but with even more personal vendettas. Maybe even with a splash of Chucky from Child’s Play in there somewhere. In other words, horrible and magnificent. Yes, my expectations for this one were through the proverbial roof.

Which made the fall that much more painful. A Guide for Murdered Children is…I hate to say it, but it’s a hot mess. Books that span genres can be exciting, compelling, and fun, but the blend of mystery, horror, and supernatural just didn’t work for me. Sparrow can’t seem to decide what she wants this book to be. There’s a lot of needless hand-wringing – by the wronged children, no less – about the futility of revenge, and doesn’t murder (in some cases, very clear-cut cases of self-defense) make them as bad as their killers? I suppose most rape revenge stories tackle ethical dilemmas such as these, but the many plot twists thrown in to facilitate the soul-searching in A Guide for Murdered Children make everything so damn tiring. By the time we get to Lydia’s monologue to Willow, I was just like “can we not”? More Punisher, less Daredevil, please. I mean I think we can all agree, since we’re talking about pedophiles and child killers here, right?

Since many of the characters are children posing as adults (or enmeshed with them, might be a better description), the dialogue is…tricky. Sparrow makes them seem a little too juvenile – overly-innocent, maybe, given what they’d been through – and the dialogue often feels clunky and overdone. On the other end of the spectrum, many/most of the characters occasionally think in $10 words that seem completely ill-fitted to them.

I didn’t really connect with any of the protagonists, and I outright despised Detective Willow Millard Wylde. Like, are we supposed to root for this guy? Willow is a walking cliché: the corrupt narcotics officer who steals from dealers; the disgraced, hard-drinking Big City Homicide Detective; the shitty “whoring” husband; and the even shittier absentee father who tries to buy his daughter off with a puppy. (Adopt, don’t shop.) Dude is a straight-up womanizer who basically fantasizes about maybe raping his new neighbor. (“Willow flashed on pushing her against the living room wall and sticking his tongue down her throat. He wondered if she’d submit. How long would it take for her to push him away? Would it be a push? Or a kick in the balls?” Make no mistake: What he is describing is sexual assault.) But they hook up and fall in love, so I guess that makes it okay.

And then there’s the matter of his boss covering up multiple cases of police misconduct and brutality. I’ve never been a big fan of this trope, but even less so considering what’s going on in the news. Like, I get that surface appearances are hecka different from the meat of the matter, but Owen doesn’t know that. Yet he agrees to a whopper of a lie so that Daniel can go out a hero cop – and to save the department’s reputation. This is gross, and it’s gross precisely because it’s the sort of thing that happens all the time IRL.

The most generous thing I can say about A Guide for Murdered Children is that the idea was intriguing enough to keep me reading from beginning to end – not once did I consider DNF’ing. Otherwise it’s a pretty disappointing example of great idea/poor execution. I can only hope that the finished version will be a little more polished (I read an early copy eight months prior to publication).

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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