Review: You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

Less than five feet tall, a hard, smooth shell of a body. Hipless, breastless still, but the way she’d transformed her body in the last two years, thighs like trunks, shoulders and biceps straining her tank-top straps, staggered Katie.

Abbott has hit a rich groove of material in exploring the darkness at the heart of girls’ lives. She has sought out the noir inherent in their feverish, hidden worlds so now you look at cheerleaders with a bit of awe and maybe some fear. While teenage gymnast Devon is the center of this book, the story is told through her mother Katie’s eyes. In classic noir fashion, what the narrator doesn’t know fuels as much suspense as what she does know — and wishes she didn’t.

Some people would always be jealous of Devon, the way they were jealous of all beautiful and brilliant things.

It was brilliant that they released this in the midst of the Olympics while Simone Biles soared to victory. The contrast between the cheering crowds and the sordid small town life behind it give this story its power.

“The greatest day of our life,” Devon said, and everyone laughed at the our, except it was true, wasn’t it?

It’s one thing to say a family makes sacrifices to get their child to Olympic level competition. It’s quite another to see how far-reaching their are, from Katie’s worry that she’s neglecting Devon’s little brother to her own isolation and fear. She watches the changes in her daughter obsessively, but there are changes in her husband Eric, too.

It was such a power, one she could never match. Even more good-looking as the years skipped by, his features settling on himself, the hot gaze of booster moms and dads transforming him, he was always able to convey the feeling that he believed firmly in all the right things.

It’s a commonplace to say parents live through their children. Abbott shows how much they can lose themselves in that pursuit. Katie’s own fears and body horror arise in her reactions to Devon’s career. When they meet with the coach she blurts out the lurking shame and fear with such unconscious alarm that it shocks even her.

“Devon’s going to get breasts, Teddy,” Katie blurted. “And hips. And everything else. She’s going to be a woman.”

The tensions underscore the entire novel: the murder, but even more so the hidden truths and fears that people reveal, sometimes without realising that’s what they’re doing. I figured out the ‘solution’ to the crime by chapter nine, but honestly, that is only a small part of what compels you through the book. As Katie begins to dig into the events leading up to it, what she increasingly discovers is what she doesn’t know.

That’s what parenthood was about, wasn’t it? Slowly understanding your child less and less until she wasn’t yours anymore but herself.

And yet we make assumptions, so many assumptions. The horrible weight Katie feels from joking about her daughter’s ‘Frankenfoot’ conveys so well the power of the stories we tell ourselves. Devon’s own counter-narrative shows that point of view is everything in a story.

Abbott manages to slip in Vonnegut, Dylan Thomas and Joseph Heller without ever making the references feel laboured because Katie’s voice feels authentic. We know more than she does, we put clues together, and yet each new revelation shows us there’s so much more.

Something was wrong, wronger than it even seemed. She just wasn’t sure what it was.

Dive in: you will know her. You might not like what you see, but you won’t be able to look away.

She hadn’t learned, no one had taught her…that the things you want, you never get them. And if you do, they’re not what you thought they’d be.

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