The reviews call it “propulsive,” “immersive,” and, of course, a “page turner.”
From the beginning, the narrator wants to talk to people about a murder that happened more than 20 years before. She talks to her dentist, to the stranger on the next barstool: “Sometimes they ask, ‘Wasn’t that the one where the guy kept her in the basement?’ No! No. It was not. Wasn’t it the one where she was stabbed in—no. The one where she got in a cab with—different girl. The one where she went to the frat party, the one where he used a stick, the one where he used a hammer, the one where she picked him up from rehab… No.”
It was the one where the victim — young, female, white, pretty and rich — was found in the swimming pool at the New England boarding school. The one where the small-town police department automatically targeted the only Black man on staff and got him convicted on flimsy evidence. He’s been in prison for 23 years when the story opens. And the narrator is an alumna of the school who was there the night of the murder.
The story of the murder has lived online for more than 20 years: on YouTube, which carries the video of the last night Thalia Keith was alive. The video shows the curtain call for the school production of “Camelot,” and Thalia Keith was still in costume as Nimue, the enchantress, the Lady of the Lake. Anyone can find the online version of the story from Rolling Stone magazine about sex, drugs, rock-and-roll and murder at a New England boarding school. A search for “New Hampshire murders” brings up Thalia’s picture and sometimes information from the police files: interviews with teachers, students, others. Anyone can find comments about how the police bungled the case and speculation about who the real murderer was.
Rebecca Makkai feeds her reader information bit by bit: the narrator is Bodie Kane, a film instructor and podcaster in Los Angeles. Her successful podcast, “Starlet Fever,” deals with ways the film industry chews up and spits out young women who want to be film stars. Not only did Bodie attend the Granby School, she was also the stage manager on that production of “Camelot.”
Bodie’s been asked to come back to Granby to lead a course — a “mini-mester” — for students on podcasting, with the idea that each student will research and produce a podcast. There has been a growing belief on the internet that Omar Evans, the young Black man who was an athletic trainer at the school, was wrongfully arrested by an inexperienced small-town police force and convicted by a racist jury.
So, it’s hardly a surprise that one of Bodie’s students picks the investigation of Thalia’s murder for the subject of her podcast.
If it wasn’t Omar, who was it? Thalia’s ski-star preppy boyfriend? The English teacher/drama coach Dennis Bloch? Female alums have gradually realized that there were signs he had an improper sexual relationship with Thalia. Or was it Puja, the student from London who left school weeks after the murder and overdosed on sleeping pills two years later?
Makkai explores the groping uncertainty of Bodie’s adolescence, how she collected information on her peers, “the way some hoard newspapers.” She hoped it would “make me feel more like them—less like myself—poor, clueless, provincial, vulnerable.”
Bodie has a lot more reason than most to feel that way: her father’s sudden death, her brother’s suicide, her mother’s desertion. She’s only at Granby because an unrelated family decided to help her and send her to boarding school. The other teenagers there may look more confident, but it’s clear that’s not necessarily true.
Boiling all through the book are instances of the murders of young women and of widespread predation on starlets by producers — so numerous that they are in long lists, and people can’t always remember which horrific case was which. And there’s bitter irony. Bodie ruminates angrily about the mounting evidence that the drama coach did have a sexual relationship with Thalia: “The realization that you, one of the best things about Granby, might have been not only a fraud, not only a predator [but] a more violent kind of monster.”
Then her semi-separated husband (it’s complicated) is accused of harassment by a former intern. Bodie defends him and loses sponsors from her podcast, so many that it might go under. Her podcast partner condemns her.
It’s a rich and stimulating mix of forensic whodunit, teen and middle-aged angst and discussion of gray areas in public discourse. No wonder “I Have Some Questions for You” was listed as a Most Anticipated Book of 2023 by TIME, NPR and The Seattle Times, among others. Her previous book, “The Great Believers,” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
Makkai’s an interesting author, even beyond the quality of her books. Her father was a poet and literary translator who died in 2020 in Budapest. She couldn’t get to Hungary for his funeral, so they decided to pay tribute to him by circling the globe, figuratively, reading one book in translation for each year of his life: a total of 84. Her website says, “We’ll both start and end in Hungary, as he did.” They headed east from Hungary, and, at last check of their website, they’d read their way to Egypt.
She’s currently on a book tour, one that brings her to Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park on March 8. The end of the bio on her website reads: “The person reading this introduction out loud before Rebecca’s event has cut and pasted this bio without reading through it first.” It would be interesting to find out how many times that happens on the tour.
Read more of the Mar. 8-14, 2023 issue.