On its surface, Jennifer Hillier’s Jar of Hearts is a thriller about a killer and those affected by his actions. However, the novel, which takes place on two different timelines, is a multilayered marvel that also explores the nature of interrupted love, looks at the result of trauma and dangerous traits that are carried in DNA, and shows the lasting impact a brutal murder can have on everyone involved in it. Furthermore, Hillier manages to pull off this plethora of elements while also entertaining with a carefully crafted, suspenseful narrative and by delivering a level of viciousness that will appeal to fans of hardcore horror fiction.
Angela Wong was one of the most popular girls in her high school. Then she vanished. For many years, her disappearance remained a mystery. No one suspected her best friend and confidante, Georgina Shaw, whom everyone called Geo, had something to do with it–including Kaiser Brody, the third friend in their close-knit group. However, fourteen years later, Angela’s remains are discovered in the woods near Geo’s childhood home. Geo is a successful executive at a big pharmaceutical company in Seattle. She is in the middle of a presentation when Kaiser, now a detective with the Seattle PD, comes in to take her away after it’s discovered that Angela, like three other women, was a victim of Calvin James, Geo’s high school boyfriend. Geo goes to prison, does her time, and is released, but leaving prison is not the end of her troubles. Haunted by the guilt brought on by her 14-year-long silence and apparently Calvin, she has to deal with her demons while facing constant scrutiny and being shunned for what she did as well as what she failed to report. When bodies start showing up once again, all killed and mutilated the same way Angela was, Geo and Kaiser are thrown into a maelstrom of death, love, and secrets that will force them to dig up the past and confront the realities, both known and unknown, of the present.
Hillier is a crime writer with a knack for brutality. The interesting thing about this is that her prose is lean and clear. She never lingers on the violence or treats it as a gimmick. Instead, the brutality comes in short, unexpected bursts that are the literary equivalent of a prison shanking. The nonchalance with which she treats despicable acts makes them stand out. This is something that starts happening early in the narrative and never changes:
Geo’s next “client” is not a good person. She takes a seat in the chair and hands Geo a few pages ripped from old beauty magazines they keep in the recreation room. Geo listens politely, trying not to think about how the woman and her husband used to own a daycare where they would film the children naked and upload the footage to a child pornography site. The woman is serving out her sentence in protective custody for her own safety, and is allowed two haircuts per year. Her husband was beaten to death in the men’s prison two years ago.
In a way, Geo is at the emotional center of the narrative as both perpetrator and victim. She is a complicated character that never fully leaves the grey interstitial area between those two things. She saw things and should have said something, but she was also scared and in love for the first time. She is responsible for causing a lot of people pain, but she also survived a lot of abuse. This duality follows her. She is never a single thing. On some instances, readers will blame her for the events of her life. In others, they will feel an emotional connection based on the fact that we have all done bad things we knew were bad but couldn’t bring ourselves to do more than hover above the moment, quietly shaking our head in disapproval. That being said, she is likeable and readers will feel a connection with her, especially when her suffering becomes obvious or when the guilt eats at her like a living thing with many teeth:
She cried into her pillow, a full body sob that wracked her from head to toe. She had to say something. She couldn’t live like this, and it sure as hell wasn’t fair to Angela’s family. At the very least, Geo knew she had to tell her father. He would know what to do, but the thought tied her stomach in knots. She hated to disappoint her dad, and yet she knew his disappointment would be the least of what he felt once he found out what she’d helped do.
Jar of Hearts would have been a successful thriller is Hillier left things at the crime/fallout level. However, she takes the narrative further and does so in a rhizomatic way, so it eventually grows and reveals secrets that show readers the multiplicity of effects a vicious murder can have on a community and especially on those directly involved in it. In that regard, Hillier looks at the details and the bigger picture, giving the novel a philosophical and emotional depth that is lacking in a lot of what contemporary crime fiction and thrillers have to offer.
Everyone has a single defining moment in life, something that thrusts them irrevocably into a new direction, something that affects them at their core, something that changes them forever. Her last image of Angela – with dirt all over her face as Calvin shoveled soil onto her – would stay with Geo for the rest of her life. She had seen that face every night for fourteen years, until the police showed up at her workplace to arrest her. Only then did the dreams stop.
Hillier is at the top of her game in Jar of Hearts, and she has been getting better with each outing. This is a tense, emotionally gritty, violent novel that demands to be read quickly, even if the result of that is having to wait longer for whatever the author gives us next.
Jar of Hearts
by Jennifer Hillier
Minotaur Books; 320 p.