I really like psychological thrillers, though more as a reader than a writer. I can’t imagine how much meticulous planning it takes to get the tension and the suspense just right. In any case, I felt both those things when it came to Before I Let Go, but I feel torn on whether or not it was an overall satisfying read.
Corey moves away from her hometown of Lost Creek, Alaska for college, promising her best friend Kyra that she would come home soon. But days before Corey is due to visit Lost, Kyra is found under the ice of a local lake. The town, which treated Kyra like an outsider for her bipolar disorder, is suddenly very reverent of her after her death. Corey tries to piece together what happened while she was gone, and what ultimately led to both Kyra’s death, and the strange, cultish attitude of Lost.
This is indeed a strange book. The isolation and dangerous beauty of Lost penetrate every page. Although Corey has lived in Lost her whole life, she feels claustrophobic now that she has seen the world outside of it. The people seem different somehow, and it doesn’t feel right to her.
Which is partly the largest problem with the book.
Corey describes how strange the people of Lost are acting in light of Kyra’s death. But we are only told about it rather than shown. We see plenty of flashbacks, but those scenes only involve Corey and Kyra waxing romantic about something or other. We do not really see anyone actively hating or shunning Kyra.
While it does make the reader question the townspeople’s extreme shift in attitude about Kyra, it probably would have made a bigger impact if we actually saw someone who hated Kyra in the past come to revere her in the present.
The mystery seemed to be building toward something, but that revelation never seemed to come. There were pieces in place for some kind of conspiracy involving Kyra with some imminent mining investment, but it never added up to anything.
However, there might be some interesting narrative play here.
At times, it seemed possible that Corey might be an unreliable narrator. Things happen that are far too strange for real life, and she witnesses events that individuals trusted by the reader deny.
The town noticed how Kyra’s paintings seemed to foretell the future, and they inadvertently turned Kyra into some sort of prophet, indicated through the shrines and one very strange scene where the town gathers for Kyra’s memorial, and they chant prayers of worship, rather than memory. Scenes such as that seemed too strange to be real, and you wonder if they even are.
Some scenes, such as the memorial, are written as though they are a movie script. That is when we seem to go to some strange place where Corey’s fears about Lost are elevated. We cannot really tell if the strangeness is real, or if we are once again victim to an unreliable narrator.
On the one hand, I love the possible ambiguity of Corey’s narration. That might make Lost’s extreme mistreatment of Corey—that her once-close friends have become near-homicidal enemies—seem like less of a stretch. It just doesn’t make sense that a whole town would repeat the same dogma about Kyra word for word, treating Corey with the same unflinching cruelty as an outsider.
And again, I’m only saying Corey might be an unreliable narrator to justify the extreme, near fantastic things that happen in Lost. But even that interpretation might be a stretch.
That said, it’s easy to get emotionally invested. You feel just as confused and angry at the townspeople as Corey is, wishing they would see Kyra as a girl, and not a mentally ill freak.
The book depicts a haunting example of bipolar disorder, and how people disregard or even abuse people with mental illness. Lost reveres Kyra for her paintings, but they were actually products of her coping with her mania. They ask for more and more paintings, but Kyra can only produce them when she goes to a very dark place in her mind. The townspeople call Kyra a star that burned too brightly and it was her time to die, when in fact, Kyra could hardly burn at all and the mental exhaustion destroyed her.
When Kyra is useful, or when her paintings play into people’s hopes and fantasies, then she is one of the community, or even as good as a god. Otherwise, she is trash that does not deserve the light of day.
Maybe if you just accept the book as an exaggerated cautionary tale about mistreating people with mental illness, it could work. But in the moment of reading it, you do not quite get that satisfaction. The narrative is still foggy and confusing and the payoff could be bigger and clearer.