Penance by Eliza Clark Book Review

Penance by Eliza Clark Book Review

📖 GenreLit Fic, Mystery, Contemporary
📃 Number of Pages336 pages
🪴 Average Goodreads Rating4.01 ⭐
🌻 My Rating3.75 ⭐

What’s Penance About?

Penance by Eliza Clark is a fictional true crime story told through the unreliable perspective of a disgraced journalist, Alec Carelli. Within Penance, you read the novel he wrote about the murder of a teenage girl, Joan Wilson, who was tortured and then set on fire by three of her friends.

Right from the start, Penance is a captivating read. Eliza Clark tends to choose extremely unreliable, abhorrent narrators who are oh-so-entertaining to follow. Alec Carelli is no different. Though critical of the true-crime industrial complex, he’s also not ashamed to use his own daughter’s suicide or Joan’s murder to get what he wants. 

We know his account may not be entirely true from the beginning. On the very first page, there’s a publisher’s note saying that a lot of the novel is fictionalized, and what the interviewees said isn’t always true. The crime is also explained immediately — you’ll know what happens and mostly how. But, you’ll be interested to understand why. 

And both of these authors (Clark, the real one, and Carelli, the fictional one) attempt to do just that. 

Penance is full of interviews, journal entries, podcast transcripts, social media posts, comments, and more, all of which is meant to flesh out the story of the murder. There is not a lot of reflection or analysis of what is said — you’ll get all the information, but it’s up to you to interpret it. I’ve seen some criticism of this online, but I disagree that it’s a fault. 

At its heart, this novel is a criticism of the true-crime industrial complex, its voyeuristic nature, exploitation of the victims, and romanticization of the perpetrators. There are some horrific podcast transcripts that ring true to how people talk about murders online. There are also excerpts from fandoms dedicated to school shooters and other criminals. 

I’d say Penance is also critical of small-town politics. The father of one of the murderers, Angelica, is rich, a hotel owner with a lot of influence, so when Angelica bullies Joan in primary school, it all gets swiped under the rug. This causes a lot of resentment from Joan, which results in Joan later bullying Angelica, which, at least in part, contributes to the motive. 

Where this novel shines, though, is in its exploration of the lives of teenage girls. All four girls get their spotlight, and you can relate to all of them. Angelica is bratty and a bully, but you can’t help but feel sorry for her when she’s bullied for something that genuinely makes her happy, like musicals. It feels undeserved, despite her own behavior. 

Violet is perhaps a little too interested in the gory and the horrible, but the visceral loneliness and disassociation she feels will take you straight back to your teenage years. The comfort she finds in being online, that little bit of power she has while playing video games or posting her stories — all of it is realistic. So is her meekness and willingness to do anything to be accepted when met with Dolly. 

And Dolly’s story is an especially sad one. It’s quite obvious that she was sexually abused, both through her behavior and her fanfiction (which you’ll get to read). 

Even Joan, the victim, isn’t spared. Though she starts out as a perfect heroine, in a way, her halo slips as the story moves forward. She was a bully too, she ditched her best friend, she wasn’t kind. But you can also understand her perspective. 

The accuracy with which Clark depicts the cruelty of teenage girls, of girlhood in general is sometimes frightening. So is her insight into the Tumblr culture of the time and the toxicity of online communities. 

Now, where I think this book doesn’t work is in Alec Carelli’s narration. It seems like he sometimes has an incredible understanding of girlhood — until he doesn’t. I feel like Clark wanted to give an accurate picture of some elements of the story, while also making sure Alec is unreliable, which is impossible because of the book’s formatting. 

It may have been a better, stronger story if the book-within-a-book format was removed, and instead, we got to learn all the same information without Carelli as the narrator. 

Overall, I enjoyed Penance. It’s not as sharp as Boy Parts (the author’s debut), but it was a good read that I still think about from time to time.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *