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Hunting Annabelle


Hunting Annabelle

Sean Suh sticks out like a sore thumb in Austin, Texas, in the mid-1980s, and not just because he’s a goth Korean-American artist who spends his days hanging out at Four Corners, the local amusement park that’s a “cheap Disneyland rip-off.” The twenty-something San Francisco native was recently released from a psychiatric prison, where he was held for a number of years after committing a horrible yet vaguely described crime. After his release, he moved with his mother, a renowned neurosurgeon, to Texas to start fresh.

Starting over isn’t going so well, though. Sean is doped up on a cocktail of prescription drugs and has no friends. He spends his days surreptitiously sketching people, choosing his subjects based on the colorful auras he sees around them. (His mother thinks these hallucinations are proof of his mental illness; Sean isn’t so sure.) When he spots Annabelle at Four Corners, he’s immediately drawn to this woman who “glows with an incandescent planetary light.” Her pull is so strong that Sean overcomes his reluctance to speak to anyone --- especially women --- and the two begin a tentative flirtation. But shortly after they meet, Annabelle vanishes from the amusement park.

"HUNTING ANNABELLE entertains with a story that raises questions about guilt, justice, and if violent, mentally ill criminals can ever be truly cured."

Thus begins the mystery at the center of Heard’s gripping debut thriller. Sean is convinced that Annabelle has been kidnapped. He heard her screams and saw her being pulled into a white truck. But the police are less sure. And given his diagnosis of schizophrenia, Sean isn’t exactly a reliable witness. Then there’s the fact that he’s a convicted murderer, which puts him more in the category of potential suspect rather than concerned friend.

Frustrated by the indifference of the police, Sean decides to hunt for Annabelle on his own. But as he digs into her past, he also must confront his own history. Sean is ostensibly cured of the violent impulses that caused him to be locked away in the first place. In reality, his desire to kill simmers below the surface, always on the verge of boiling over. That, combined with troubling stretches of lost time, raises the possibility that he might be more involved with Annabelle’s disappearance than he wants to admit.

Author Wendy Heard makes a bold choice in asking readers to identify with Sean, a confessed killer of women who hasn’t quite tamed his violent urges. The uncertainty about who Sean really is, and what he may or may not have done to Annabelle, drives the story forward, even as it makes for some uncomfortable scenes, like when he imagines “how silky soft it would feel to draw a sharp knife through layers of human skin” during a conversation with Annabelle’s roommate. (Heard admits that HUNTING ANNABELLE, which depicts violence against women, racism and police brutality, should come with a “trigger warning for everything.”)

The 1980s setting serves the story well. Sean’s Austin is not yet the hipster-friendly city of food trucks and famous festivals, where his odd appearance wouldn’t merit a second glance. Instead, it’s hostile, foreign territory where police officers call him a “gook” and his fashion choices inspire equal parts disgust and laughter. It’s also a period when fear of serial killers gripped the public. And as one of the detectives investigating Annabelle’s disappearance points out, a lot of those killers came from California --- just like Sean.

Heard excels at setting a tense creepy mood, but as the novel hurtles toward its conclusion, a few too-hard-to-swallow plot twists take things in an implausible direction that doesn’t gibe with what’s come before. But despite a flawed third act, HUNTING ANNABELLE entertains with a story that raises questions about guilt, justice, and if violent, mentally ill criminals can ever be truly cured.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on January 4, 2019

Hunting Annabelle
by Wendy Heard