Well, the first bit of info that sparked my interest is that the story is about a female serial killer. I’ve only read one other novel that focuses on such a character — My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, which was a propulsive read. I assumed In the Garden of Spite would be the same, so I quickly added it to my TBR.
Then, from Mogsy’s review, I learned that the novel is like a character study. We observe the protagonist justifying “being the monster, rationalizing her degeneracy and why she must do what she does,” which fascinated me and made me quickly hop on my library’s website to place a hold on the book. I got lucky and got an early placement in the queue for it. And now I can say it was a really good read.
Historical; Thriller; Horror
An audacious novel of feminine rage about one of the most prolific female serial killers in American history–and the men who drove her to it.
They whisper about her in Chicago. Men come to her with their hopes, their dreams–their fortunes. But no one sees them leave. No one sees them at all after they come to call on the Widow of La Porte. The good people of Indiana may have their suspicions, but if those fools knew what she’d given up, what was taken from her, how she’d suffered, surely they’d understand. Belle Gunness learned a long time ago that a woman has to make her own way in this world. That’s all it is. A bloody means to an end. A glorious enterprise meant to raise her from the bleak, colorless drudgery of her childhood to the life she deserves. After all, vermin always survive. (Goodreads)
“I had survived — just to spite — and I would rise in spite as well.”
Oh man. This book.
It’s been a struggle to get my thoughts together for this one because I want to share what I thought and how great a read it was without spoiling it. As such, I’ll forgo the recap and hope that you read the Goodreads synopsis above, which does a good job of enticing the reader without giving away much. The most I will say is that this is a historical thriller that touches on the horrific and is about a female serial killer in the late 1800s.
The protagonist, Bella, grew up in poverty in an abusive household in Norway. After a violent experience that left her near dead, she decides to live on in spite and immigrates to Chicago with financial assistance from her older sister, Nella, who had been living there for some time. Although she was called Brynhild in Norway, Bella took on a new name when she arrived in the U.S. as she made plans to start a new life, one of wealth and comfort.
It’s been a struggle to get my thoughts down because I don’t know where or how to begin. The book was great and I want to do it justice, but I think no matter what I say, I won’t be able to fully get that across. So, I’ll just state it here — again : The book is great, and I HIGHLY recommend it. So far, I’ve been mentioning it to everyone I meet every chance I get. I recommended it to a couple coworkers at my many jobs. I recommended it to several family members and even bought a copy for my aunt. At the bookstore, I’ve recommended it to several customers and a couple were interested and bought it! (I love it when that happens; I do hope the book goes well for them.) Since the story gets quite horrific and gory at times, I do warn folks about this. It’s not a read for everyone, but if you can stomach the bloodiness, then I HIGHLY recommend this book to you.
This was my first time trying Bruce’s work, and I will certainly check out other things she has written. I liked both the writing and storytelling in this book. And although the story is slow-paced, I was gripped by it; my interest never wavered. This was due both to the compelling story and to Bella’s voice. The intrigue and atmosphere at the beginning sparked and held my interest. Actually, a few times early on in the book I wondered if it would touch on the supernatural (and even later in the book I wondered this too) because of the talk of changelings and how peculiar Bella is described to be at times and also the slight haunting feel to some of the settings. As the story progressed, Bella’s voice, or rather her confidence, kept me hooked. She’s a little sarcastic, which I like, and often uses people’s expectations, especially of women, against them.
However, I appreciate that we get a break from Bella’s thoughts to hop over to her sister’s, Nella. This helped to insert some anticipation in story, similar to what I experience when reading mysteries, since Nella can only speculate about what Bella is up to and what her motivations are, similar to us, although we do get to read from Bella’s perspective; but Bella can be a little unreliable at times, I think. Nella later annoyed me and I ended the book not liking her character much. I understand that she found it hard to believe the truth about her sister, but I think she should have done more about what she suspected/learned.
In addition to the anticipation that kept me eagerly reading, there were several shocking turns that made me exclaim and have to pause a moment before reading on because (although I saw a few coming) I couldn’t believe what happened. I’d love to mention them, but they are HUGE spoilers and one occurs close to the end that still has me wondering if it was intentional or unintentional. Another plus to reading from Bella’s perspective is seeing how she rationalizes committing the horrific acts and, later when she’s overcome by the release she gets from such acts, how she begins to devolve until that release becomes more important than anything or anyone else. It was such an interesting read!
Anyway, although it’s mentioned in the synopsis and the reviews I’ve seen and probably in other places I’ve seen the book mentioned, I was STILL surprised to learn that the story is based on a real person — that Bella Gunness was a real person 😲. Bruce mentions this in the Author’s Note, where she discusses writing the book. I was so blown, y’all. I totally forgot or maybe skipped that tidbit when reading about the book. I immediately hopped on to Google to do a quick search to make sure Bruce wasn’t lying to me. She wasn’t.
I don’t gravitate toward books like In the Garden of Spite, so it’s a surprise to me that I liked this one as much as I do. Shout out to both Mogsy and Tammy again for a great recommendation! I refrained from considering it a favorite when I was done because it just seemed weird to consider such a story a favorite, but it’s been several weeks since I’ve read it and I’m still eagerly talking about it with everyone I know, and even those I don’t. So, yeah, I’ll admit it’s one of my favorites. I can see myself rereading it at some point too. I’m glad I gave it a try.
Five stars, of course. I liked it too much not to rate it highly as well.
Buy | Borrow | Bypass
I think it’s worth getting a copy, although I’ve yet to get a copy for myself. I recently bought a copy for my aunt, and I intend to get my own when the paperback comes out. I’m not a fan of hardcovers.
If you like this, you might like…
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite