Books & Literature

Book Review: Please See Us, by Caitlin Mullen

THRILLER: Two young women become unlikely friends during one fateful summer in Atlantic City as mysterious disappearances hit dangerously close to home.

A sophisticated debut thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Caitlin Mullen’s impressive debut novel, Please See Us, is a suspenseful, psychological thriller that leaves you holding your breath until the very last chapter.

Atlantic City was once a place buzzing with tourists and with promise, but over time most of the casinos have closed their doors and employment is hard to come by. In a marsh behind a run-down hotel just west of town, two Jane Does lie decomposing, soon to be joined by Janes 3, 4, 5 and 6.

Clara is a teenaged psychic who is struggling to make ends meet with tarot readings. When she begins having very real and disturbing visions, she begins to suspect that they might be connected to the women who have recently gone missing in town. Meanwhile, Lily has landed back in her hometown after a relationship breakdown cost her a promising career, and she is now working a dead-end job at a desolate casino spa. When Clara and Lily meet, Clara believes that Lily may be able to help her make sense of her visions, but Lily also has her own demons to overcome.

The first characters introduced in Please See Us are the Jane Does. Their voices are reduced to the sensations of the marsh around them and of their crumbling bodies, and snippets of their lives before they were brutally cut short. Having the first thoughts and ideas in the book provided by the dead is a clever way of immediately drawing the reader into the gritty heart of the story, and it only becomes more difficult to put down from there.

Each character is written with complexity, making the reader sympathise with each despite unethical or downright dangerous choices. The characters also each have an element that gives them a disadvantage, or lack of power compared to the (mostly) men that take advantage of them. Clara has dropped out of school and has few career-path options outside of eventually selling her body. Lily’s once-promising career was destroyed by her boyfriend’s betrayal. Luis, the cleaner at the spa, has a physical disability that leaves him as easy prey for anyone looking to push someone down. And of course, the Jane Does, who have suffered the ultimate betrayal and paid the price.

Perhaps the most striking “character” of the book is the city itself. Atlantic City has an unusual history, having been a family resort town, a soldier’s training camp during World War II, and a prosperous casino town in the 70s and 80s. More recently though, it has become tired, with casinos closing down, an opioid epidemic sweeping the region, and feral cats making themselves at home. Mullen paints a picture of the faded town with familiarity and accuracy, having grown up in Atlantic City and at one stage, worked at a spa not unlike the one where Lily works. She gives the location a true character of its own, one that influences the choices of Clara and Lily as much as the actions of an antagonist.

A running theme through the book is the way women can be taken advantage of by men, or perhaps more accurately, how those with little power or agency are taken advantage of by those in power. The way Luis is also abused in the book shows that it is not only women who suffer this injustice. In this vein, a trigger warning for sexual abuse in particular, should be noted.

Please See Us is a gritty, well-crafted thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat. Mullen’s sophisticated writing makes it difficult to believe that this is a debut novel, and she is definitely an author to keep an eye on in the future.

Reviewed by Kristin Stefanoff

Distributed by: Simon & Schuster Australia
Released: April 2020
RRP: $29.99

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