Devon Knox is an immensely promising young gymnast, despite having lost two toes in an accident with a lawn mower when she was just three. She's worked obsessively hard, and her parents, Eric and Katie, have had to work just as hard, and make serious sacrifices, devoting themselves to her career. But when the handsome young assistant coach at her gym is killed in a hit and run, the finely tuned cocoon around her begins to come apart, and the family face difficult choices as blame and suspicion permeate their tightly-wrapped world fraught with competition, pressure, and jealousy.
All parents know that feeling that 'one morning you wake up and there is this alien in your house', but even as she says it Megan Abbott is reinforcing the darkness behind it with the story of cave fish who, when seeing their parents for the first time, still cannot be seen by them. Around this tension flows the classic noirish theme of the man with the one-train mind, but half-track brain; the innocents and the temptresses, tempered by the family and 'the smell of chloraseptic and panic'.
One of the beauties of Abbott's writing is the way she can transform the most mundane narrative into a dream-like state, where the characters are fighting as much with fate as with each other. This would come as no surprise to readers of her first five novels, with titles like Die A Little and Bury Me Deep, which drew on classic film noir themes and settings, in a way which heralded her as an original and unique voice in crime writing. You Will Know Me is her ninth novel; the last four have been set in a suburban world that is indeed more mundane, but every bit as threatening as the world of those earlier books.
I was surprised the marketing people didn't try to retitle this one something like The Girl On The Balance Beam, in an attempt to lure in that 'Girl whatever' audience. But You Will Know Me is a title which points the way to what this story is at heart, a true noir thriller. At a time when everything from Danish political dramas to cozy kitchen mysteries has the label 'noir' slapped on it, rendering the term virtually meaningless, what Abbott has done is to drawn out the essence of noir from these modern settings, and subtly transmuted the basics of noir to serve her purposes. There's a touch of Thomas H Cook in this, a bigger touch of Dorothy Hughes, but each of Abbott's novels has had its own approach to this darkness. Her dilemma is how to make our world and its optimism jibe with the futility that lurks at the heart of the world of noir.
She does it with the help of the kind of classical allusions that Devon's injury recalls, as much Nathaniel Hawthorne as James M Cain, as well as the contemporary (Amanda Knox?). The dreamy images of seeing, of illness, of fever, that run through the tale draw you into its world. They immerse you in its uncertainty. Not in the mystery puzzle sense, but in the sense of how does life continue? how is life measured? how do children grow up and parents help and hinder them? It brings the dilemmas of real noir down to an everyday level, which, if you study it, is the essence of noir, the everyday turned upside down. This tale of everyday obsession may well be Megan Abbott finest piece of writing to date, which means it is exceptional.
You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
Picador, £14.99, ISBN 9781447226352