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Cartwheel by Jennifer DuBois

I was sent this book in e-reader format which had no accompanying blurb, so I read with no inkling of what it was about. It begins with a father, Andrew, arriving in Buenos Aires with Anna, his youngest daughter. Lily, his eldest, is in jail accused of murdering her room mate. It is clearly based on the murder in Italy of Meredith Kercher, and the conviction of her fellow exchange student, Amanda Knox.

Amanda Knox inspired page after page of speculation in the Italian, UK and American presses. She was deemed to have behaved inappropriately in the aftermath of the murder and faced “trial by media”. Like Amanda Knox, Lily is examined through her social media pages, messages, photographs and cctv, and judged long before her case goes to court. The story is told through the perspectives of Lily, her father, the prosecutor Eduardo Campos, and Sebastian, the young man she had been casually seeing.

Initially I was impressed. The writing is good enough that it took me a while to realise that despite the occasional interesting psychological insights there’s not an awful lot of substance. It’s as if DuBois skates prettily across the surface of what is actually lurking darkly beneath.

Sebastian’s parents died in suspicious circumstances and left him alone, wealthy and isolated in a sprawling mansion. (I couldn’t fathom any relevance to them being spies) and finds comfort watching the Carrizo house where Lily and Katy are staying.

“Sometimes he imagined that they could see him, too. This fantasy kept him busy and decent, dressed, up at reasonable hours, engaged in activities that were arguably fruitful.”

I liked that very much. It felt as if it could be real whereas in a novel based on reality, not much else did. Sebastian provides another good line when he recalls his father telling him:

“Nobody is really paying attention to you. Most people don’t really get this. They think they must count more to other people than other people count to them. They can’t believe the disregard could truly be mutual. But it’s a useful thing to learn…”

Perhaps this goes against the central theme of the novel which seem to be the idea that we are all being watched, even when we think we aren’t, because our trail of photographs and social interactions can be found and examined if something happens which warrants public scrutiny. Pieces of a puzzle can create a picture that looks like truth but isn’t.

Lily is portrayed well as one of those bright, intelligent, but not quite as unique as she hopes, teens. Isn’t that most of us when we were her age? Katy remains a sketchy “perfect” girl. I had sympathy with Andrew as he struggled to deal with how off kilter his life was. I thought the way he got things wrong, and realised that, made him quite endearing. Sebastian, as we are repeatedly told, suffers from sounding sneering and sarcastic, however, it’s the prosecutor who is the least realistic of the characters. He has an on and off love affair with an erratic woman who serves as a reminder that behaviour can be eccentric, odd, even cruel, without being illegal. Neither his love affair or prosecution convinced me.

Disappointment comes with the realisation that reading Cartwheel is rather an empty experience. It’s a well written book which elevates it beyond a schlocky crime biography –  a literary book I suppose. But that doesn’t stop it being a novel about an actual horrific murder. I think I would need to feel it added some… understanding or something, for it to succeed. As it stands I feel a bit dubious about why it was written.

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