Charlaine Harris

Gollancz (2009)

ISBN: 978-0-575-08554-1

Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack, June 2010

Grave Secrets is a novel by Charlaine Harris, currently best known for the Sookie Stackhouse novels, which have become the TV series True Blood.  This is apparently the fourth in a series starring Harper Connelly.  Although I knew Harris’ name and reputation, this was the first of her novels that I’d read – and I was really impressed by how good it was, and how reluctant I was to put it down.

Harper was struck by lightning when she was 15, and when she recovered she found that she could “read” graves – she could tell what a person had died of, and sometimes something about their last few minutes. It’s an odd talent, but enough to make a living at. People will sometimes pay her to find an unmarked grave, or to reassure them of the cause of someone’s death, or perhaps just for the curiousity factor. Together with her lover and step-brother Tolliver, she travels America reading graves.  In this novel, she is hired to read the grave of Rich Joyce, to confirm what killed him, and accidentally uncovers what might be a murder.  It’s hard for her to focus on this, however, as their lousy family history is coming back to confront Harper and Tolliver.

One of the challenging aspects of Grave Secrets, for most readers, will be the romantic and sexual relationship between Harper and her step-brother Tolliver.  I totally get that they aren’t related by blood, and that in theory it’s no weirder than falling in love with the boy next door who you’ve known since you were two, but it still made me a little uncomfortable. On reflection, what bothered me was that Harper kept calling him her brother.  If she didn’t want to deal with other people feeling confronted and uncomfortable with the relationship – well, why keep calling him her brother even in situations where she didn’t need to?  Sure, she slipped sometimes. But often it seemed to me that she revealed both the brother/lover relationship when she really didn’t need to. This jarred with me a bit, as it didn’t fit with the way she tried to be unobtrusive in other aspects of her life.

I did also find it annoying that the book didn’t indicate clearly that it was part of a series, or where in the series it fit.  I didn’t realise until I started feeling that Harris seemed to be assuming I knew more about the characters than I did, and I turned back to the title page to find a list of other novels that appeared to be in the same series.  I hate that; as a reader I like to be given the choice to start at the beginning of a series (although as a reviewer I often don’t have that choice).  It’s true that this does read pretty well as a standalone. You’ll be able to follow the plot and engage with the characters with no problem, and it was an involving read, even without the (presumed) build-up of plot and character across the series. It was mostly in the character development that I noticed a sense of something lacking; as I said, an impression sometimes that there were things about these characters that I should already know. For some readers this won’t be a big problem.

These are relatively minor criticisms of a novel that was overall extremely enjoyable and in places quite compelling.  Harris deals well with the uncomfortable aspects of Harper’s career. Even those who pay her aren’t always sure they believe her; she faces a constant weight of doubt, and those who think she’s a fraud can be aggressive in their disbelief. She attracts weirdos and crackpots, and it’s hard to talk about what she does in polite company. More, it’s exhausting and she can’t turn it off – if she’s near human remains, even very old remains, she’ll likely be picking up some indications about their deaths. It’s not necessarily wonderful to have such a talent, and while it makes Harper unique and earns her a living, it can also be very isolating.  Harris depicts this complex and awkward picture realistically and well.

There is an element of the thriller about this novel, particularly in the mystery surrounding why someone seems to be trying to kill Harper, and in the ongoing quest to find out what happened to her elder sister Cameron, who disappeared years earlier. These elements give the plot much of its impetus, and certainly made it a difficult novel to put down at times.  The next time I read a novel by Harris, I’ll try to start it when I’m likely to have a long uninterrupted period to lose myself in it.  Harris quickly had me deeply involved in the question of what happened to Cameron, and more immediately, what happened to Rich Joyce and why.  The speculative elements of this novel are integral to the plot, though, and this story couldn’t be told without Harper’s supernatural abilities.  Grave Secrets is both a strong thriller and strong speculative fiction novel.

Harper and Tolliver are vivid and well developed characters, and most readers will empathise with them. They’ve overcome a difficult past to build a reasonable life together, and tend to just get on with it when faced with further adversity.  Not everyone will be comfortable with their relationship, but Harris isn’t too explicit with her sex scenes, so I suppose if it really bothers you, you could try not thinking about it too closely.  As I said, I was slightly bothered by the way Harper said she didn’t want to confront people, but kept telling them Tolliver was her brother and lover.  This was the only slightly false note in the characterisation, and perhaps it’s explained by something in the earlier novels.

This is a well written, engaging, and overall excellent novel.  It does have some strong themes, and so although it’s a pretty easy read – the text goes past smoothly and without a hiccup – I’d probably suggest it’s for mature and slightly open minded readers.