When seventeen year-old Jamie Henry receives word that his older sister Cate, is being released from the juvenile detention center where she's served a term for arson, his hands turn ice-cold. It's more than a matter of discomfort they become completely numb and useless, and Jamie is temporarily crippled by this mysterious affliction. The first time this happened was two years ago, when he first heard about the midnight fire in a barn on the Ramirez ranch. Sarah Ciorelli, Jamie's best friend's girlfriend, was badly injured, along with several of the horses. Cate confessed to setting the fire and was sent away.
All Jamie wants is for life to be normal to play jazz and keep his 4.0 grade-point average. He wants to pursue the tenuous but gratifying relationship he's begun with Jenny Lacouture. But all this is at risk whenever he has one of his inexplicable spells of paralysis. They seem to be brought on by surprise and worry. Now that Cate is released, Jamie is under an even greater amount of stress. His nineteen year-old sister is volatile and unpredictable. As Jamie tells us: "The last night I saw Cate, she was drunk. Or on drugs. Or just plain crazy. Take your pick." We know Jamie's struggles are tangled up in his relationship with Cate.
From the first chapter of this young adult novel and even from the publisher's description of the story it is clear Complicit is a story about mental illness. Jamie is fragile. He's worried about his sister's sanity. But he has good reason to be. After all, he and Cate survived some horrific times together as young children. They started their lives fatherless and in extreme poverty. When their mother was shot and killed in their own home, the siblings were sent to live in a series of upsetting foster homes. Finally, they were adopted by the wealthy but grieving couple of Angie and Malcolm Henry. Angie and Malcolm's own children a boy and a girl were killed in an accident. They are a family made from tragedy. And one that has been torn apart by Cate's destructive behaviors.
Now Cate is determined to see Jamie. She calls and sends him messages. In harsh and impatient language, she insists that they meet. She screams and cusses and reveals the rage that Jamie fears. Because the story is told from close inside Jamie's head, we see Cate through his eyes. We feel his distress and uncertainty over the things Cate says. She tells Jamie there are things he doesn't understand. She wants to share information with him about their mother and their past. But every time Cate gets close to Jamie, his hands go numb and he passes out. When he finally wakes again, he has no recollection of their meeting. It's clear that Jamie is terrified of his sister and what she might be capable of doing. Yet, he also loves her. Admires her. He wants to save her.
Desperate to understand what Cate wants and to make sense of his memories, Jamie begins to search for the truth. The resulting story is fast-paced and filled with tension. Because we only get Jamie's perspective, there is no way we can grasp the whole picture. After all, he is an unreliable narrator struggling with his own complicated psychological issues.
Although Jamie is clearly intelligent and triggers our sympathy, he is not particularly likable. He believes Cate to be the reason he has no friends. He is judgmental and disdainful of his adoptive parents despite their obvious care and generosity. Maybe "Crazy Cate" knows something we don't.
Complicit definitely falls into the genre of psychological thriller; there is never any doubt that Jamie is on the edge of madness. The novel feels like an authentic look at the battle with mental illness; one can see what it might be like to lose one's ability to interpret and make sense of the world. There is no mystery about whether Jamie is unstable or not. It lies instead in his unraveling, the shaking up of his coping strategies.
Although Stephanie Kuehn is a masterful storyteller, I don't think Complicit has quite the same heart and poignancy of her debut novel, Charm & Strange; the winner of the William C. Morris Award for debut young-adult literature. However, this is definitely a compelling and taut tale told in precise and well-wrought language. Any reader, young adult or older, fascinated by the intricacy and mystery of mental illness will be well rewarded.
This review was originally published in July 2014, and has been updated for the March 2016 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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