Bonfire by Krysten Ritter is a stand-alone mystery novel and the author’s debut release. I checked it out from my local library a few weeks ago probably for the same reason that many others did: I am a fan of Netflix’s Jessica Jones series, and I wanted to see what kind of story the main actress could cook up. I also heard from one of my favourite BookTuber’s (she specialises in thrillers and horror novels) that the novel was fairly decent for a debut, and after reading the book, I agree with that assessment very much! It’s quite decent, but far from excellent.
Bonfire is told from the first-person perspective of a woman named Abby Williams, who left her small-town home of Barrens, Indiana many years ago in effort to run away from all of the terrible memories and the haunting tragedy that loomed over it. Now, working as an environmental lawyer, Abby is forced to return to Barrens in order to help solve a mystery surrounding the town’s biggest corporation, and the main financial supporter of nearly all of the town’s governmentally ran businesses. With her return, she must face all of the people—including the girls who bullied her and the father who abused her—that she tried running from, as well as the things that she worked so damn hard to forget. Yet, the more that she dives into the town’s history and personal connections, she closer she gets to a much darker and sinister plot, one that will threaten to destroy her.
The first thing that I noticed about Bonfire, about twenty pages into it, was that I had read twenty pages in approximately ten minutes. The book is compulsively readable, egging me to continue even when I needed to put it away so I could life. Since it is told via a first-person POV (point-of-view), most of it has an intimately provocative vibe to it, one that is analogous to reading a person’s private journal entries. Abby is quite an opinionated and judgmental person, so this only adds to the awkward discomfort that I felt, particularly when she’s making assumptions about these strangers who are flickering ghosts from her past.
Another thing that I noticed was my love/hate relationship with Abby. Because she is presumptuous about the townspeople, she has a major attitude problem. Now, I can understand her being rude and stand-offish to those who make judgmental and uncouth comments of their own to her face, mostly in a passive aggressive means, but I don’t feel her disrespect is warranted with others who are genuinely just trying to have a conversation with her or assist her to the best of their abilities with the case that she’s working on. It’s like she believes the whole world either revolves around her, or that everyone is out to get her because her pain is what they live for. It’s a rather self-absorbed mentality that she has going on that made her frustrating as a main character, as well as challenging to empathise with.
Regardless of the things I loathed about her, in a way I also came to appreciate them because it made her so wholeheartedly flawed and imperfect. I feel that she is as emotionally screwed-up as lots of other people out there, myself included, and it’s an aspect that many readers may be able to build a connection with. For example, my past is one ugly motherfucker, and I try very hard to ignore it as much as I can. But when I can’t, and it slaps me in the face, I’m just as much of an asshole with it as she is. I’m not proud to admit it, nevertheless, it gets my point across rather swellingly.
A couple of other things that surprised me (pleasantly) included a small spot of diversity within the cast members and the premise. Abby’s professional partner is a gay black man. While I feel that his representation follows a couple of harsh stereotypes (that all gay men are sex-obsessed or “slutty,” and decidedly offensive with their honesty), I did appreciate the attempt at having more than a bunch of white heterosexual faces. However, I do feel a gay person would be much better able to discuss the representation of him. There is also a politician who is South Asian, and he is an honest and reliable person, which surprised me and made me feel pretty damn happy as most South Asians in such positions tend to represented as crooks or the like.
The premise initially felt like it was going to follow a stereotypical mould, but then the big twist dropped, and I found myself feeling rather shocked. That twist changed the vibe of the narrative into a standard and clichéd foundation into something with a bit more depth and originality. Everything else was so damn predictable that this part of the book ended up making me smile and feel thankful.
Bonfire’s biggest shortcoming, as briefly mentioned above, is the predictability. The antagonists, the general mystery surrounding the town, the motives—it was all so easy to decipher, and within the first fifty pages or so. This was further amplified by the severe lack of tension or suspense. Everything unfolded monotonously and in what felt to be slow-motion. Even though it read quickly, the progression of one event to the next came off lethargic. The only time I felt any ounce of suspense was probably during the last forty pages with the climax, and even then, due to it’s obviousness, it was anticlimactic.
My second issue, and this is more of a minor thing, were the loose ends that were left unexplained. In most mysteries or thrillers, there are a couple of things that are never truly explained, and it helps to create a bit of ambiguity to make the story stick with the reader long after the book is over. Yet in Bonfire’s case, some of those loose strings that were left hanging were results of bad writing rather than a desire for cool uncertainty. These things went hand-in-hand with wrapping everything up neatly.
The last thing that irked me was Abby’s interactions with some of the men from Barrens. I don’t like it when a seemingly intelligent female character turns into a mushy, blubbering idiot when she is surrounded by good looking, charming men. I don’t care how handsome or charming a guy is, a girl, especially one who has a history of being abused psychologically by said dude, fawning over them, or allowing themselves to be manipulated for sex seems unreasonabe and unlikely. It was quite off-putting.
All in all, I think Bonfire is an acceptable debut that just needed a bit more editing with a few pivotal areas. It reads fast, has an overarching scheme that is different than the norm, some diversity, an imperfect character you will hate but relate to on some level, and decent writing overall. I think if you are interested in checking out Ritter’s talents as a writer, you may want to try your hand at reading Bonfire. However, if you are searching for a good, tight mystery thriller, then you won’t find it here; it’s quite average. Enjoyable, but average.