Having discovered Ronald Malfi’s works through the very engrossing novel that was Black Mouth, I was eager to further explore this author’s production and choose this book which is quite different in tone and storytelling but is equally riveting.
Aaron Decker lives a very normal, very contented life with his wife Allison: he works as a translator of Japanese books, she is a journalist in the local paper, and for the last five years they have enjoyed each other’s company and mutual complicity, but as the story starts Aaron’s world crumbles into pieces as Allison is killed in one of the many freak shootings that happen in shopping malls. Stricken by grief and unable to make sense of what happened, Aaron stumbles on a motel’s receipt showing that Allison stopped there during one of her husband’s absences from home, and suspecting his wife of having been involved in a secret relationship he tries to retrace her steps in the months prior to her demise.
What Aaron finds, however, is quite different: for years – even before their meeting – Allison had been on the hunt for a serial killer, a man who certainly murdered Allison’s own sister and probably a number of other girls across the country. As he tries to unravel the string of clues Allison was following, Aaron discovers a side of his wife, and a part of her past, that was unknown to him and he decides to follow in her path, to bring the man to justice and accomplish what Allison was unable to do.
What Come With Me boils down to is an all-encompassing obsession, one transmitted from Allison to Aaron, both of them trying to come to terms with the grief of an unbearable loss and finding in the single-minded focus of the hunt a reason to live and – maybe – learn to process the death of a loved one. There is also a supernatural thread running throughout the novel, mostly centered on Aaron’s perception of a presence in the house, something he wants to believe is a remnant of Allison: lights blink on and off in the bedroom closet, the house’s virtual speakers come on playing Allison’s favorite songs, a shadow seems to linger in their shared study. But it’s unclear if these manifestations – if they are indeed messages from the Great Beyond – are real or if they are the product of Aaron’s grief and his desire to connect with Allison in some way.
Aaron could somehow be classified as an unreliable narrator: much of the clues he pieces together don’t seem to fit, and it’s easy to suspect that he might not be as objective as his search would require, and his relentless pursuit of the killer takes on the color of obsession more than anything else, as if Allison’s own obsession had taken hold of his mind. It’s also intriguing to observe that the narrative is almost a long letter to departed Allison, to whom Aaron addresses his feelings and the progression of his quest.
Come With Me is a very atmospheric story imbued with a strong sense of impending doom, and at the same time it’s the exploration of two characters whose surface appearance at the start of the novel changes drastically as the narrative unfolds: on one side we have Aaron, a guy who looks level-headed and pragmatic and who sets himself on the hunt for a killer by taking risks and almost courting danger with what looks like reckless abandon, almost as if his loss had engendered a death wish; on the other we have Allison, a woman capable of leading a double life, keeping her darker pursuits from her husband – one of the most poignant facets of the story comes indeed from Aaron’s discovery of a side of his wife he was never able to perceive before.
I must confess that at some point in the novel I believed that it had become mired in Aaron’s grief-fueled search, as if his actions were leading him (and therefore the reader) in aimlessly repeating circles, and it also looked as if the mix of disparate clues, paranormal manifestations and weird findings (like the eerie collection of dolls he finds inside an abandoned factory) were taking me nowhere: I was ready to throw in the proverbial towel, moving forward only through sheer curiosity to see where this apparently ungainly mess was headed. Luckily for me, that curiosity made me persevere and arrive at the final resolution where all the little pieces of information the author had scattered throughout the book came to fruition, not only where the identity of the serial killer was concerned, but more importantly where the haunting phenomena Aaron experiences finally paid off. And they did so in the most shockingly unforeseeable way. I am not going to say any more because of spoilers, but I was pleasantly stunned by the way some sentences or some seemingly unrelated occurrences contributed to such an unexpected ending.
There is still a final consideration I need to share: the inciting incident for this novel comes from a very real and very personal event concerning the author, described in the Author’s Note at the end of the book. If you tend to skip these tidbits of information, don’t do it here, because these words will offer a further shade of meaning to the overall story. One that confirms Ronal Malfi as one of the writers I must keep on my radar…