January 18, 2022
St. Martin’s Press
There’s something out there that’s killing. Known only as The Cur, he leaves no traces, save for the torn bodies of girls, on the verge of becoming women, who are known as trouble-makers; those who refuse to conform, to know their place. Girls who don’t know when to shut up.
2019: Thirteen-year-old Lila Sawyer has secrets she can’t share with anyone. Not the school psychologist she’s seeing. Not her father, who has a new wife, and a new baby. And not her mother―the infamous Caroline Sawyer, a unique artist whose eerie sculptures, made from bent twigs and crimped leaves, have made her a local celebrity. But soon Lila feels haunted from within, terrorized by a delicious evil that shows her how to find her voice―until she is punished for using it.
2004: Caroline Sawyer hears dogs everywhere. Snarling, barking, teeth snapping that no one else seems to notice. At first, she blames the phantom sounds on her insomnia and her acute stress in caring for her ailing father. But then the delusions begin to take shape―both in her waking hours, and in the violent, visceral sculptures she creates while in a trance-like state. Her fiancé is convinced she needs help. Her new psychiatrist waives her “problem” away with pills. But Caroline’s past is a dark cellar, filled with repressed memories and a lurking horror that the men around her can’t understand.
As past demons become a present threat, both Caroline and Lila must chase the source of this unrelenting, oppressive power to its malignant core. Brilliantly paced, unsettling to the bone, and unapologetically fierce, Such a Pretty Smile is a powerful allegory for what it can mean to be a woman, and an untamed rallying cry for anyone ever told to sit down, shut up, and smile pretty.
Such a Pretty Smile by Kristi DeMeester is an unrelenting, dark novel that immediately grips you in its claws and refuses to let go, even when, at the beginning, you think, “nope, not for me.”
The novel moves between timelines involving daughter Lila (2019) and mother Caroline (2004). The story begins with Lila who seems to be fueled by an internal voice that takes over and allows her to verbally savage the people she cares about most. It was this instant, seemingly((?) even now I don’t know) savagery that had me reconsidering my read of the novel.
However, Caroline’s sections were compelling and page-turning, especially as her history was uncovered, and I knew I couldn’t put the book aside; I had to know, understand–if possible.
Such a Pretty Smile is classified as a horror and, yes, some of it fits that bill, but I might also suggest that some of the horror comes in the way that men control women and when those women fight back, they are undermined, their credibility questioned, they are reduced to sexual beings, or reduced to nothing at all. “Smile for me, just give me one little smile.”
DeMeester has chosen one of the settings as Jazzland amusement park. Like many old amusement parks Jazzland seems to be creepy all on its own, but it was also built on the site where defiant black women were hanged decades upon decades ago. How well all of the screams from roller coasters mesh with the screams that women who are sensitive hear inside their heads. This is just powerful.
The novel is filled with anger and gore and I am not one given to triggers typically but the author chose to use dogs as a source of evil as well as to have two scenes which disturbed me. I’m not sure why the author chose to use dogs in this way–bad experience?–but I wonder if hyenas or a mythical cat wouldn’t have been more appropriate rather than a domestic creature that is not typically savage. I don’t consider dogs, despite the moniker of “man’s best friend,” irrevocably linked to men. So I’m offering this up. If someone had told me in advance about the dog issue, I might not have read the book at all, but then I would have missed out on a big read. Your call.
Such a Pretty Smile is an incredible read, one that the reader will be considering well after the last page.
I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.