Review — The Night She Fell by Eileen Merriman

Reviewed by Briar Lawry

If you're a fan of slow-burn, character-driven thrillers, you will have a great time with The Night She Fell. There may not be any Jack Reacher action sequences but you'll be on the edge of your seat as you reach the end.

Sometimes in a thriller, solving the mystery can preoccupy the reader at the expense of the rest of the story. And in other thrilling novels, the story is so compelling you forget — at times, at least — the ‘goal’ of figuring things out. So, when the truth is unveiled at the novel's end, you can't help but throw your hands up in surprise and exclaim, 'W_ait, wait, wait!_' as you try to take it all in. The Night She Fell, by the indefatigable Eileen Merriman, definitely falls into the latter category of thriller.

Equally crucial to the 'why-dunnit' in the main plot is the exploration of the pressures of social status and the expectations of success on the young characters. Early in the story, we see how the narrator, Xander, is affected by the class differences between him and his girlfriend, Ashleigh. Xander grew up with a single mum who struggled to make rent, while Ashleigh comes from money and privilege. Ashleigh's family has supported Xander financially and socially on his journey to and during medical school.

Ashleigh's family has supported Xander financially through his five years of medical school, and he feels beholden to them. Adding to the mounting pressure, Ashleigh is behaving in a way that gives Xander plenty of reasons to want to step away from their relationship.

The critical and titular moment in this book, Ashleigh's death (signposted by the ominous top-floor window on the cover art), is initially presented as shocking and unbelievable. But as the story unfolds, leaping back and forth between chapters marked 'Before' and 'After', her death starts to feel like it may have been inevitable (for reasons I won't go into for fear of spoiling the book).

We're clearly intended to read the title The Night She Fell, as this pivotal point in the story — the moment when everything changes. But in fact, there's another night when someone else falls that's also essential to the plot. This is the night — well, late afternoon — that Ashleigh's flatmate Ronnie fell and hurt her ankle. It's clever misdirection and leaves the reader with more questions than answers — ideal territory for a thriller.

With its university setting, young protagonists and pop culture references, this book feels like it's written with the nebulous 'new adult' reading audience in mind. Perhaps that's overly simplifying things, but it ticks three of the main boxes for me: protagonists in that late teens/early 20s age bracket, somewhat explicit sex, language that is accessible and not wholly dissimilar from the style of writing that one would see in (quality) young adult fiction.

Given Merriman's foundation in young adult fiction and her slightly more recent forays into contemporary adult fiction, this all makes sense. And it feels like a great target audience to shoot for, given the rise of the appeal of the likes of Colleen Hoover and other writers whose work very successfully reaches this demographic.

 As an aside, some of Merriman's YA work would have perhaps been more at home marketed to this demographic too — I'm reminded of A Trio of Sophies, which was released while I was working at Little Unity, a children's and teens offshoot of Unity Books. I really rated the book, but unlike Merriman's other works, which I gleefully recommended, the content was really too mature for me to comfortably suggest to a younger crowd. So often, the most extensive readers of YA are voracious and precocious pre-teens and barely-teens. The 'new adult' category seems like the ideal fit for Merriman to push the boundaries.

But back to the story itself. The back-and-forth temporal jumps – and later the POV jumps — do an excellent job of framing the story and ensuring that relevant details are kept front of mind when Merriman wants them to be. By extension, it also means that it's much more of a surprise when other plot points are mentioned and pointedly not brought up again until a critical moment. It keeps you on your toes and guessing throughout.

I won't say this book is without flaws. It's a questionable choice to develop a character in a way that seems to equate mental health troubles with criminal behaviour and sexual kink. I'd love to have seen more development of — or at least answers about — a couple of characters (I won't reveal names) prowling on the edges of the story and who seemed likely to have more involvement than they did in the end. One character in particular appeared to be set up as the herald of future instability but then dropped off the radar halfway through.

On the other hand though, the cast of characters in The Night She Fell is fascinating and well-crafted. The up-on-his-luck med student, grateful for his lot in life. The self-centred, high-powered law student. The after-hours-druggie pharmacy student. The incisive psychology student bent on armchair diagnosing those around her as a kind of penance for wrongs of the past.

If you're a fan of slow-burn, character-driven thrillers, you will have a great time with this one. There may not be any Jack Reacher action sequences – maybe aside from Xander's judo classes – but you'll be on the edge of your seat as you reach the end. 

Reviewed by Briar Lawry