The story begins with the brutal murder of a young mother by her abusive drug-addicted boyfriend, Travis, as her seven-year-old twin daughters, Anna and Hannah Amiel-Janssen, watch in helpless terror. When Travis flees the scene with Anna in tow, we know we’re in for a harrowing ride. Two years later, Hannah, the other twin, is discovered nearly comatose behind a dumpster half way across the country. Travis has since been captured and is serving out his sentence for the murder of the girls’ mom, but Anna is still missing. Hannah’s case is handed over to social worker Debbie Gillan, who just happens to be dealing with some bad shit of her own as long-repressed memories of abuse are beginning to surface.
As I’ve said before, one of my major pet peeves in fiction is when an author writes kid characters poorly. Dean Koontz is notorious for this, or at least he used to be. Frankly, I haven’t read any Koontz since probably my mid-twenties. Perhaps I should remedy that. So, yeah, terribly written child characters drive me up the wall. Kids are people too, and they deserve the same level of development and attention to detail as adult characters. Luckily for McIlveen, he nails it, and that’s all-important for a book like this, where unraveling the mystery surrounding the young twins is the hook. Of course, given that he is the father of five daughters himself (and what do you wanna bet a couple of those are twins?), he really had no excuse to get it wrong there. Well, he didn’t. Hannah and Anna are not merely foils for Debbie; they’re well-drawn characters in their own right: smart, charming and talented. Debbie too is wholly likeable, though not without her flaws. That’s important.
In fact, if McIlveen had done nothing else with this story but explore the psychology and history of these three protagonists, it would’ve been a solid if not particularly extraordinary novel. But he also invests all three of them with supernatural powers of a rather unique sort. At the risk of revealing too much, I will simply say that the book’s title is not merely symbolic. Hannahwhere is an actual place in this story, and its origins and connection to the twins is fascinating. If I have a complaint here, it is only that I would love to have spent more time in Hannahwhere, to see it fleshed out a bit more. I could absolutely see someone like Peter Straub giving the place the time and attention it deserves, delving more into the intricacies of its flora and fauna, weather patterns, and what-have-you. Even so, the story is pretty tightly paced and that will appeal to most readers, so I can’t complain too too loudly about this.
The main thing to understand going into this is that we just can’t help but empathize with these people, which is a blessing, but it’s also a curse, as it makes the conclusion all the more devastating. Ordinarily I prefer my fiction to have some stylistic flourishes, to play with language and ideas, even at the risk of falling into a bit of abstraction. The last book I reviewed, Paul Meloy’s The Night Clock, was just such a book. But it was perhaps just a little too abstract, and to be sure, few of the characters were very likeable. Hannahwhere is nearly it’s spiritual opposite, with fairly straightforward prose stripped of all pretensions, put entirely in the service of its story. And here I was grateful for that, as it provides the narrative with a deceptively simple and sweet allure that is all the more unnerving for its dark subject matter and that walloping gut-punch of a finale that well and truly hurt. Exactly as it should have. Mr. McIlveen earned himself a new fan with this one for sure.