THAT NIGHT is very appropriately named, given the darkness and unrelenting grimness of the subject matter. Author Chevy Stevens continues to refuse to follow formulaic outlines when writing her novels, so one never quite knows what to expect when initially cracking the binding on her latest work. So it is that her three previous books will do nothing to prepare you for what takes place in THAT NIGHT, where she plumbs the depths of despair and the heights of hope.
The book jumps around a bit in time. Stevens helpfully headlines each chapter with the time and place where each occurs, thus doubling down on the assurance that readers will not get lost in the story of Toni Murphy, who, we learn early on, has been imprisoned for a murder she did not commit. As the novel opens, she is just being released from prison; the narrative soon jumps back to her senior year of high school in the mid-1990s, when she experiences the heaven of true love with her boyfriend, Ryan, and the hell of the mean schoolgirls, as well as seemingly continuous problems with her mother. Her life becomes a nightmare when she and Ryan are tried and convicted for the murder of Nicole, her younger sister.
"An ending with a fine bit of irony puts the finishing touches on THAT NIGHT, Stevens’s most complex and intriguing book to date, one that deserves to be read and carefully considered."
The story then moves back and forth between the events leading up to the fateful night of Nicole’s murder and Toni’s time in prison. Ryan is hopeful that their conviction will be overturned, even as their only permitted contact is through letters, despite being in prisons located within sight of each other. When that slender hope dissipates, Toni sinks into despair, carving --- in some cases, literally --- her way into the hierarchy of the prison population and biding her time until she is freed.
When Toni is finally released on parole, she is 34 years old and has spent half of her life in a prison cell. Life outside, though, has its own set of problems and temptations for Toni. As one might expect, she is a far different person from the one who entered prison some 17 years before, but now she must avoid trouble in any and all forms, including --- and especially --- Ryan. Unfortunately, as she encounters former friends and old enemies, Toni discovers that it may be only a matter of time before she finds herself back in trouble and behind bars. She soon realizes that she has no choice but to do what no else has done, which is to solve the murder of her sister, a case that is not just cold but closed. There are impediments to doing so that she cannot imagine, but the ultimate answer is as shocking and surprising as the rest of this dark, tragic, often violent story.
There are times when THAT NIGHT reads like a young adult novel, particularly during those sections dealing with Toni’s high school years, though the themes and situations are very adult. It is a mark of the depth and width of Stevens’s talent that she can put one in the mind of the tumultuous high school years while alternating with Toni’s time in prison --- while she is barely out of her teens --- and the sudden displacement that freedom brings just as she begins to approach middle age. The comparisons and contrasts of Toni’s life balances the heart of the book, which is, after all, a murder mystery and the miscarriage of justice that is deliberately occasioned.
An ending with a fine bit of irony puts the finishing touches on THAT NIGHT, Stevens’s most complex and intriguing book to date, one that deserves to be read and carefully considered.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on June 20, 2014