1290 It pays to pay attention

The Day She Died
by S.M Freedman

Toronto: Dundurn: 2021
$18.99 / 9781459747401

Reviewed by Myshara Herbert-McMyn

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The Day She Died tells Eve’s story through the broken pieces of her life as she attempts to rebuild after a terrible head injury. The story weaves through amnesia, a strange marriage, and a terrible shift in the focus of her painting. As the story developed, I began to understand Eve’s fear of her birthdays.

The Day She Died is a slow-burn thriller that captures your mind and refuses to let go. The first time I opened it, I read only a few pages before I stopped and decided to finish my other projects. I knew I needed to put a good chunk of time into this novel, and when I had an entire evening I dove back in. The book shocked me with how enticing it was. I read it in one sitting and emerged on the other side still feeling completely wrapped up in the story. Freedman wove the strands of the mystery intricately so that the story intrigued me. Eve didn’t understand the connection between her amnesia and her short-term memory loss, and Freedman adds to Eve’s uncertainty about reality in the present while giving tiny bits of the answers in flashback chapters. I didn’t figure out most of the reveals before the end, and I didn’t know until then what the reveals were going to be — other than one, which didn’t take away from the story.

It pays to pay attention to The Day She Died. Each chapter alternates between the present timeline and Eve’s past birthdays. It’s easy to flip past the chapter headings and miss that each one has a time-label, and become confused. More than once, I made myself read the headings and place them in the timeline in my head. I recommend keeping this in mind when going into this novel.

Vancouver writer S.M. Freedman

Character-driven novels always fascinate to me. I love to see the development of ordinary people from their inner perspectives. Freedman adds a perplexing level to this character study by giving Eve amnesia following her accident, so that she didn’t know what was going on in her life. Moments that occurred days apart flow from one to the next seamlessly as if no time had passed. Eve found paintings she had done when she had no memory of picking up a paintbrush.

The slow and meticulous rhythm of The Day She Died makes up for the lack of action by presenting questions that refuse to go away, much the same way that The Push by Ashley Audrain draws in the reader by moving through the early life of the main character’s daughter and hinting that something is horribly wrong. I feel I had to stick around to find out what that thing was, or until Freedman had answered the questions.

Since Eve is an artist, I must touch on her art and how it changes over the course of the novel. The artistic imagery is vivid without being over the top. For example, before her accident Eve is standing in the hallway with her grandmother, Button, looking at her finished pieces. Eve talks about one of her paintings, describing it as a café on the Rue Saint-Honoré. “I’d paint it differently now,” she says. “Tighten the focus to that scatter of bread crumbs, and where the coffee splashed into the saucer. Highlight the imperfections” (p. 18). Like any artist, Eve reflects on how she might improve the simple scene in France.

S.M. Freedman at the Terry Salman Branch of the Vancouver Public Library

Another painting shows the Adlers’ backyard in early summer, a peaceful scene of friendship, nature, and love. “Button touched Sara’s painted cheek, traced the flowers clutched against her chest, and ran her finger over the blood-red soil at Sara’s feet” (p. 19). The rest of her paintings are similar, describing scenes or moments in Eve’s life in a gentle and simplistic style.

Then Freedman shows what Eve paints after her amnesia and it’s truly horrific:

Gone were the children, the blackberry bushes, and the hazy summer sky. At the top corner, the river still lapped peacefully to the shore. But as it continued down to the centre of the canvas, it transformed into a thick, silver snake. It coiled over and around itself, scales shimmering with hints of green and blue. Red droplets of blood sprayed from fangs to flank. Instead of a tongue, a human arm unfurled from its mouth like a nightmare party whistle. The hand was delicate, the fingernails shiny with dark polish (p. 89).

Each piece of this painting is surreal and terrifying, with everything in opposition to the happy, calm tones of the previous paintings. Something inside Eve’s mind has changed the way she sees the world around her. Many more questions emerge, and the plot thickens.

Fans of Criminal Minds, of thrillers like The Push, and of true crime will love The Day She Died. This story won’t be for everyone, but it will appeal to those of the curious inclination. For some, it’ll be worth checking content warnings before diving in. There are very mature and disturbing themes mulling about in here.

Despite those adult themes, The Day She Died is a dazzling read. Eve’s journey is hopeful and heartbreaking, with many deadly twists and turns. I can’t wait to read more from S.M. Freedman now that The Day She Died has devoured me so completely.

*

Myshara Herbert-McMyn

Myshara Herbert-McMyn is a book reviewer and aspiring writer living in the Okanagan. She runs the blog Lit&Leta. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and Creative Writing from Thompson Rivers University. Editor’s note: Myshara Herbert-McMyn has also reviewed books by Sofi PapamarkoJohn O’NeillChristina MyersPaul Bae, and Ruth Daniell for The Ormsby Review. Previously, with her TRU mentor Ginny Ratsoy, she reviewed books by Roo Phelps and Tim Conley. Myshara lives in Kelowna.

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The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of BC books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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