Title: I Have Some Questions For You

Author: Rebecca Makkai

Publisher: Hachette Australia, 2023; RRP $32.99

I Have Some Questions For You is the latest novel from the author of The Great Believer, winner of the Carnegie Medal and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. Makkai has also written for children, and her work has appeared in a number of best reading lists and prominent literary journals.

Bodie Kane has returned to the remote and exclusive Granby boarding school in New Hampshire where she had been enrolled as a sad and lonely child by a wealthy, well-meaning family to complete her final four years of schooling. And also to rescue both her and her deeply depressed mother from years unable to provide for her daughter’s most basic needs.

Now 23 years later and no longer the unpopular, overweight and sulky emo of the past, a sophisticated and successful Bodie has returned to Granby to teach a two-week course on podcasting to a group of film students. But one of her students has chosen the murder of Thalia Keith, Bodie’s bright and popular roommate in Bodie’s final year at the school, as her subject. The murder having never left the public eye due to opinions widely split on whether the right person had been convicted.

The story shifts from the past to present as memories surface in the older Bodie’s mind and through reconnecting with others still at the school. It is also viewed through the lens of her role as teacher to her students, and by connections made in the general arena of social networking, which is itself a constant throughout as the murder is slowly and painfully unpicked.

Rebecca Makkai lives on campus where she went to high school, but the similarities with her novel don’t extend to murder

makkai talks about ‘I have some questions for you‘ with time magazine

There is a wide and varied cast of characters, each bringing their own memories and their own issues both past and present to the search for truth. The most tragic is Omar Wilson, the pool boy accused of the murder, whose story – unusually for a murder mystery such as this – we follow through Bodie’s searching from his conviction and entry into the prison system to the experiences he endures that follow. 

As Bodie’s thoughts move back and forward from the past to the present she also breaks away to address a mysterious other known only as Mr Bloch, speaking to that person as if they were actually present, referring to past incidents in which they played a part in her student years and the life of her murdered roommate. This pops up suddenly throughout, oddly jarring moments in reading where suddenly the reader is deep inside Bodie’s head as if standing before a closed door. This is an interesting strategy and is extremely effective, weaving amongst all the other characters involved.

The question at the heart of it all, however, is not just whether Omar was the real killer, but how he came to be convicted, and what role racism and protecting the reputation of the school played.

As the plot unfolds, brief, factual references listing incidents where racial and sexual power imbalances played a role in investigations and convictions emerge. These reveal those less-desirable organised underpinnings of society manifesting in legal decisions and actions where men who have abused, raped and murdered young girls and women are able to escape prosecution on petty points. All occurring in professional arenas of the law and politics as well as the domestic places on the streets and in homes.

Significant holes slowly emerge as Bodie, her students and others probe the past – particularly how Thalia’s absence in the close-knit community was not noticed until days later, how key people were not interviewed, why the unnecessary delay in cordoning off the crime scene leading to its being compromised, and wildly conflicting stories were not followed up, and more. The investigation slowly emerging as too riddled with incompetence for it to be accidental.

Makkai talks about how to write a boarding school, harassment and murder

@ boston.com

There are a number of other suspects and, while interrogating the past, issues of gender inequality, bullying of the girls, and power imbalances in the past bubble to the surface through her memories. This is shown through a slow unpacking of Bodie’s everyday life in the school as a moody and sullen student, where small ugly acts of humiliation are a daily occurrence but treated as normal, and where there is a layer of inappropriate behaviour by a teacher that goes undetected for decades.  In this hothouse environment where privileged, testosterone-driven young males combine with adolescent rebellion and insecurities, an increasing sense of explosive tension builds, creating a sense that anything can happen, and this carries across every page without let-up.

Tension is finely held throughout. The plot is skilfully constructed given its complexity. Past and present are clearly delineated so I did not get lost on where and when, with all tightly held together, telling a coherent story despite also being riddled with convincing false leads. Part of this is cleverly achieved by the chapters being of widely varying lengths, from one which contains a single question, like a thought suddenly breaking focus, to short and introspective, and longer.

For both those simply wanting a satisfying murder mystery, and those liking some poetry or literary smarts in their murder, this literary mystery will please.

It is beautifully written and though the theme could be said to be an old one, I was hooked from beginning to the satisfyingly unexpected end.

Reviewed by: Rhonda Cotsell

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Review copy provided by the publisher