Book review: Hunting Annabelle by Wendy Heard

About two-thirds of the way through Hunting Annabelle, I knew I’d found one of my new favorite characters. I also knew whodunit.

Then I kept reading, and I realized I had no idea who’d done it and was introduced to perhaps my new favorite character.

Hunting Annabelle by Wendy Heard is one of the best debuts I’ve ever read, certainly in the same conversation as Sharp Objects (Gillian Flynn) and Carrie (Stephen King).

Of course, by the time I’d settled on what I thought had been taking place behind the scenes, I had already gone through three hypotheses that did not work out. And even after the major reveal just before the climax, I still thought I knew what the next few twists would be.

I’ve never been happier to have been so wrong.

Heard’s protagonist, Sean Suh, is simultaneously unique and universal. Without giving away any spoilers, the young man was placed in a mental institution and diagnosed with schizophrenia after killing a girl as a teenager. His struggles with himself and his diagnosis center on something I think all people experience (certainly I do): the dark flashes, the momentary impulses, to do harm to others that have no root in rational thought. To protect others, he tries to avoid all contact by getting lost among the crowd at a fictional theme park in Austin in the mid-1980s.

But what’s a mentally ill murderer to do when he begins a loving, if obsessive, relationship with Annabelle, a young med student he’s just met? And then, what’s that same mentally ill murderer to do when she is kidnapped during their last “date?” The answers take us through Austin, a fictional small town in northeast Texas, and into the dark history of both Sean and Annabelle.

This novel is one of those rare stories that has completely unexpected (yet plausible) twists and is a ton of fun getting to them. Also, the stakes are raised and the characters become larger-than-life subtly, which is not easy to do for any novelist.

The story is set in my neck of the woods (Austin and The University of Texas), so there are a few details that momentarily took me out of the narrative, one of which is explained in the acknowledgments. These are pretty inside baseball for UT grads and those who’ve lived in the Austin area so it won’t matter for most of you. I also thought the 1980s pop culture references were a bit heavy-handed at times, but they did their job by reminding me early that this story is set in that time, which is why the characters were sometimes looking for telephones and twirling the cords with their index fingers.

And at no point did any of those small detractors make reading the novel less satisfying.

Gripping from beginning to end, I recommend Hunting Annabelle anyone who loves thrillers, especially those who enjoy being outsmarted by the writer.

Hunting Annabelle is available in paperback, ebook and audiobook wherever you buy your books. If that place is Amazon, here’s a link to the book’s page.

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