Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Books: "Penance," British Phenom Eliza Clark's Second Novel



By Eliza Clark

Harper/HarperCollins Publishers; hardcover, 336 pages; $30.00; available today, Tuesday, September 26th

Eliza Clark was born in Newcastle Upon Tyne in the UK in 1994. Her debut novel Boy Parts was written after she received a grant from New Writing North's Young Writers' Talent Fund. It released in Britain in July 2020, when it was made Blackwell's Fiction Book of the Year. Boy Parts was released this past May in the U.S., and please click here to check out our review. In 2022, Eliza was chosen as a finalist for the Women's Prize Futures Award for writers under 35 and was selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2023. 

Penance is Eliza's second novel, and it is a deeply chilling story that unravels the devastating murder of a teenaged schoolgirl.

Joan Wilson was just sixteen years old when she was set on fire by three of her peers, girls she went to school with, a crime which shocked the rundown seaside town on the Yorkshire coast.

It's nearly a decade later, and journalist Alec Z. Carelli has arrived to write an in-depth report of the largely forgotten attack. Carelli was disgraced after a spell of controversy surrounding one of his recent works, and he is searching for a cast that can put him back on the map.

Joan's murder had been the subject of exploitative podcasts and local media alone, and this is the story Carelli needs. His account of the crime is illustrated through hours of interviews with family members and witnesses, deeply detailed historical research, and unprecedented correspondence with the killers themselves.

The question is, how much of the story is true?

As was the case with Clark's debut, Boy Parts, this story is written in a unique and imaginative way, and the mystery unfolds with Tumblr posts, podcast excerpts, fanfiction, diary entries, and interviews.

Clark taps into a facet of popular culture, as Penance tackles our modern obsession with true crime and raises troubling questions about the media regarding gender, class, and power, while painting bone-chilling portraits of young women caught in its web. 

In this excerpt, Clark writes of the girls who targeted Joan and how they were connected: "At around 4:30 a.m., on 23 June 2016, sixteen-year-old Joan Wilson was doused in petrol and set on fire after enduring several hours of torture in a small beach chalet. Her assailants were three other teenaged girls - all four girls attended the same high school.

The crime took place in Joan's hometown of Crow-on-Sea in North Yorkshire. The seaside town sits between Scarborough and Whitby, protruding from the east coast of England like a small finger reaching for the continent. It has a beach to the north and a beach to the south.

The North Beach is loud. Brightly coloured amusement arcades, donkey rides, gift shops and a small funfair mean it is favoured by tourists and families. The South Beach is classier. You'll find nice restaurants and little artisan shops overlooked by the ruins of Crow-on-Sea Castle.

Both beaches are rimmed by rainbows of pretty, passel-coloured beach chalets. The North Beach chalets are council owned and accessibly priced. Most families in Crow could afford to rent a chalet on the North Beach - at least as a treat. The South Beach chalets are modern, privately owned and pricey. Joan died on the South Beach.

During 2015 and 2016 both the northern and southern chalets had been the targets of a spate of arsons and, as a result, the few witnesses who saw the smoke did not inform the authorities. It was a tiny fire, and Crow's emergency services had dubbed the chalet burnings 'a waste of [their] time' in a 2015 local news report.

A beach chalet on fire was nothing to bat an eye at. Neither was a car occupied by three teenaged girls speeding around the empty streets at half past four in the morning. The kids in Crow were bored - minor acts of teen delinquency were a fact of life.

The assailants were dubbed Girls A, B, and C until their identities were leaked by the local newspaper. Girl C (the oldest) drove, Girl A sat in the front and Girl B in the back. Their accounts of the mood in the car vary. Their accounts of everything vary. They do not agree whose idea it was to hurt Joan, who 'started it' on the night, or who among them set the fire. Girl A blames Girl C and vice versa. Girl B had been waiting in the car. She had not laid a hand on Joan and spent the night walking back and forth from the beach to the car in a state of shock and confusion. She claimed she tried to encourage the other girls to stop their assault. The other girls do not agree on this - Girls A and C say the fire was Girl B's idea.

Some things are clear, at least. The timeline is more or less undisputed. After the girls set the fire, they ran from the South Beach up a concrete staircase to Girl C's vehicle, a Fiat 500 stolen from her older sister. Girl C had been taking driving lessons on and off for a year. She had failed a driving test in January and then again in March. She was due to retake it again in a few weeks. She regularly borrowed her sister's car but had taken it without permission that evening.

The trio drove to the nearest twenty-four-hour McDonald's - a motorway service station a thirty-minute drive west. In the car, Girl A said she hoped Joan would burn up with the chalet, so the police would not see the other injuries. She hoped they might blame Joan for the chalet burnings. It would be a death by misadventure. Joan Wilson would be remembered as a teen arsonist, tragically killed by her own bizarre hobby.

But Joan Wilson did not die.

The small fire the first set went out quickly. Damage to the chalet itself was minimal. The petrol they'd poured over Joan was the dregs of a can kept in the car for emergencies. It burned away Joan's clothes, it caught the floor around her. It burned her face beyond recognition, and her body beyond the point she was likely to survive her injuries. But it burned out...

Joan died three days after her ordeal. The story of her murder gained little traction in the mainstream media due to its proximity to the UK's EU referendum vote. Brexit dominated the news for weeks, and nothing about Joan Wilson's murder was narratively useful for Britain's majority right-leaning press. All the girls involved were white and British. They were mostly from average socio-economic backgrounds - though Girl A came from a wealthy family, well known locally. Girl A's father was a right-wing 'politician', a rent-a-gob. It is possible that the papers that had given the father column inches made an intentional effort not to highlight the fact his daughter was a vicious, murdering bully...

Through circumstance the girls found one another. They spent the better part of the year leading up to the murder becoming more and more invested in a bizarre fantasy world - a little religion, fed by each girl's individual obsessions and furies. Joan Wilson became a target for them. For things she had done, and for things the girls imagined she would do. 

They were playing pretend. And then they were not."

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