The Collective: One of the Year’s Best Thrillers By Alison Gaylin
Reviewed by Marcia Allen, Collection Services Librarian, Manhattan Public Library
Camille Gardener lost control of her life five years ago. Heartbroken over the death of her 15-year-old daughter who attended a fraternity party, drank too much, was raped, and wound up freezing to death beyond the fraternity lawn, Camille has just made a terrible decision. Mixing medications with alcohol, she feels it is a reasonable decision for her to attend the alleged rapist’s award ceremony for exemplary service. Of course, this goes badly. She loudly accuses him of murder, and Camille is quickly arrested for the disruption. She is allowed a phone call that she places to her dear friend Luke, and she is released the next day.
The connection between Camille and Luke is a sad one. When it became clear that Camille’s daughter would not survive her ordeal, Camille and her then-husband Matt decided to donate their daughter’s organs. Luke is the recipient of the young victim’s heart.
A business card handed to Camille at the ceremony features one word on it: Niobe. Camille researches the name and learns that Niobe was a figure of Greek mythology, a mother of twelve whose children were murdered when her bragging about them enraged the other Greek deities. A follow-up email informs Camille of a group of mothers whose children’s murderers have not been punished. Feeling that this might be a helpful support group, Camille reaches out to other grieving mothers via the dark web and learns that they are all involved in the business of untraceable justice, successfully torturing and murdering unpunished offenders. Thus, begins a thriller that is unlike any other in recent publishing. Following in the steps of our damaged protagonist, we are drawn into her involvement in this group and cringe when she performs tasks that become increasingly more daring and more productive.
What gives this book its special appeal? It’s really a combination of several factors, all working together to create a believable and horrific tale of grief and its aftermath. Camille, for example, is a character for whom we feel great empathy. The man responsible for her daughter’s death was vindicated, and Camille was treated as a pariah for being so outraged and outspoken. Though it has been five years since her daughter died, Camille has made no progress toward any sense of peace or acceptance, nor has she found any kind of helpful therapy. Her role as grieving mother is a clear reminder to any parent of the awful pain inflicted when a child dies.
Another compelling aspect of the book is the depth to which Camille allows herself to be sucked into the actions of the Niobe group. She finds herself doing things that she would never have considered had she not lost her daughter. Her initial horror at what she has done quickly becomes an acceptance that she justifies because of her loss. She does not seem to realize that once she is involved, there is no turning back.
The intricate plot is equally captivating. Camille quickly learns that this group has been in operation for a few years, so its steps to retribution are convoluted and planned slowly over time to evade discovery. We learn of Camille’s realizations just as she does, and there is something to be admired in the planning.
All in all, this is one heck of a story that begs to be read by those who enjoy thrillers. You will find that “The Collective” does not disappoint. Like me, you will probably rush to see what else author Gaylin has written, and you will not be surprised to learn that she earned an Edgar Award for one of her other thrillers, “If I Die Tonight.”