You may remember that February was my month of reading mysteries. This was one of my February reads, and one of the top books I have read yet this year. I gave it Five Stars on GoodReads. And then I had to calm down a bit because yeah, man, it was THAT good. And as for the publisher’s description, no, not Gone Girl. There was nothing unreliable about this narrator. Nothing at all. This was Girl with a Dragon Tattoo meets Life After Life. So many choices. So many unanswered questions.
This story was riveting. I rocketed through it in two giant 200-page gulps, not regretting a moment. I felt like a ping-pong ball, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the story unfolding in front of me. The Kenyan setting was lush, the characters were whole. I especially loved Tina, AKA Tiny Girl, whose life is turned upside down when her mother is killed.
This is a rich story, full of consequences. She and her mother are refugees from a village that is too close to the militia fighting in Congo. Tina spends the book finding out just how close her mother is to the fight. I don’t want to spoil it, but let’s just say that it is very complex, and dangerous. They land at a rich white guy’s house, the Greybill mansion. Greybill works for the mining industry in Kenya, has married a local (albeit rich) girl, and lives up on a hill far above the common rabble.
There are so many layers here, honestly. Anderson’s descriptions of the grimy port town of Sangui City (yes, that means blood) put you right in the middle of it, and Tiny Girl’s Rules let you know just how precarious each day is. Most chapters start with a Rule, and the first one is: You don’t exist. She becomes invisible so that she can survive. When her plan for revenge takes her back into her old life, she must walk a very high tightrope, and you, dear reader, will walk that tightrope with her. Tina spends her days dodging dangerous thugs and stealing from others. She belongs to a gang, but she’s not exactly part of the gang. That all comes together later, too.
I was with Tiny Girl the whole time, careening from one situation to another, from the dusty streets of Sangui City to the carpeted halls of the Greybill mansion, from the decrepit hospital to the dense, humid forest. This was gripping, compelling, full of details and characters that made it all seem like a newsreel, unspooling in front of you. All the human emotions and realities collide with the greed of business and the lust for power, capturing children in its grip and making them old – and wise – before their time.
It’s plain that the lives of the gang, street kids taken in to do dirty work by a local crime boss, are very real. You don’t invent that kind of detail from whole cloth. These kids are waifs, starving. Tina becomes one of them when she is “rescued” by one of their leaders, while trying to steal a mango. She is on the streets, because she doesn’t want to go to the convent where she hid her sister. You can’t exact revenge from behind a convent wall. So there are sinners, and the tattoos on Tiny Girl’s arms tell the stories of the saints.
Even after Tina is thrust back into her old home, where her mother was a maid, she still thinks like a street kid. She is always watching her back, always on the lookout for what she can get out of a situation. Rule 12: always be ready to bolt.
And yet, I really liked Tina. Tina is smart. Really smart. She knows how to read a room. She knows when to say what, and when to shut up. She has another Rule: thieves don’t have friends. So Boyboy isn’t her friend – he’s a useful thing to have around. He can help her hack into security systems, steal information, find schedules and floorplans. And even though he is the only one she lets up on her rooftop, he is definitely not her boyfriend. He’s got it just as rough as she does, even if he does have a family: a poor gay kid in a town that does not suffer softness.
Everything about this story works: the setting, the characters, the intrigue. It is a thriller in a slow-burn kind of way, though things really do get rocking fairly quickly. Piecing together the puzzle of what happened with Tina’s mom, and then finally, what is going on in the village in the Congo, and how it relates to the house on the hill, will keep you up way past your bedtime. Just when you think you are going to solve one mystery, another one pops up in its place.
I would love to see more of Tina. I loved her and her whole crew – yes, even Michael. And my heart feels for her and Kiki, and I want to know more than anything what happens to them.
So yeah, five stars. And I never give stars. I don’t see the point of differentiating between three stars and four stars. And one star is just too mean. So I only give five stars. But then rarely.
I don’t know if there is a sequel coming, but if one pops up, I’m all over it.