Review: “Black Out,” Lisa Unger

Pros: I can follow this one (mostly)! Fascinating characters
Cons: PoV does weird stuff
Rating: 4 out of 5

I recently read Lisa Unger’s Beautiful Lies and Sliver of Truth. The tales cavorted through a minefield of lies and deception and the past and the present and so forth to a point where I couldn’t help but get lost along the way. Now her Black Out (also available in a set with three other novels: Four Thrillers by Lisa Unger) followed a similar path–but made it work.

Annie is happy with her husband, Gray, and adores her daughter, Victory. She has friends. She’s a wife and mother. So why does she need an expensive psychiatrist who can help her retrieve some suppressed memories from before her marriage? Why does she see things that others don’t–especially threatening people? Slowly Annie recovers memories from her own childhood, when she was named Ophelia and fell under the spell of a serial killer named Marlowe. No one ever found his body–is it possible he’s alive and that he’s coming for her? And if that happens, is it Annie or Ophelia who will face him? Will a nosy detective break open her identity as Ophelia?

 

The characters are wonderful. Gray is in love with Annie, and he’s well aware of who she was and what she did at Marlowe’s side. He was paid to find her, but he kept going long after the money ran out, having become obsessed with Ophelia and the quagmire she’s caught in. He’s a good guy–and he clearly loves her–but there’s some ambiguity present in the lines drawn between ‘in love with’ and ‘obsessed with’. Gray’s parents definitely have their own agendas going, and his father Drew is on the nasty side and has an amazing network of contacts. There’s a detective who becomes obsessed with finding out Annie’s secrets; he’s neither a bad guy nor a good guy, and her family pays him off to stop looking into her past. All of these folks, even the characters that don’t have a lot of screen time, have full personalities. Because of this, I found it easier to keep track of who’s who.

In those recent two books of Lisa Ungers’ that I’ve read, the story ping-ponged from now to then to once-was and on again. There was so much leaping back and forth that I got lost. In this volume, she’s starting to get a hold on those wildly thrashing plot threads. There is some jumping back and forth, and at first I went a little nuts trying to figure out what was past, present, and future. Unlike those other books, I felt that these threads did eventually untangle themselves. Would I like a little more specificity? Yeah, of course. (Peter Clines’ tendency to label chapters simply ‘now’ or ‘then’ is still my favorite treatment of that difficulty.) But at least I felt it was worth the trip. It also seemed appropriate that not all details were wrapped up in a bow by the end–the author seems to have hit the sweet spot of explaining enough without explaining too much.

The PoV does give me a little trouble. It’s primarily in first person delivered by Annie. However, occasionally it’ll jump off to something that doesn’t directly involve her, and yet she’s still narrating what’s happening in these other scenes. At least in this book there was a partial good reason (it turns out) for a little bit of that, but on the whole it’s still confusing and just feels wrong.

There are some powerful pieces of writing here and there, and I found gems like “depraved optimism”. Paranoia weaves its way through nearly every scene. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the end of the book for you; I’ll just say that while it’s a little far-fetched I loved it anyway!

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