Megan Abbott's last novel, The End of Everything, was an intense and claustrophobic examination of burgeoning female teenage sexuality, tied to a mystery involving a missing girl. Dare Me is similar in style and themes, but it ups the stakes, to make for a mesmerising piece of prose combining deep characterisation and insight with a truly nerve-shredding crime plot.
Set in the bitchy, back-stabbing and hugely competitive world of American high-school cheerleading, the story is narrated by 16-year-old Addy, who at the start of the novel has been a long-serving lieutenant to Beth, queen bee of their school's cheerleading squad. Beth, a master at emotional manipulation, keeps everyone in their place, until the arrival of a new cheerleading coach, the attractive and inspiring Colette French.
Coach French soon has the team under her spell, but she has dark secrets of her own. As she takes Addy into her confidence, Beth begins a campaign of revenge and intimidation. Without wanting to give too much away, events spiral out of control before reaching a painfully tense climax at the final cheerleading event of the season.
Throughout it all, there is something wonderfully tactile and visceral about Abbott's prose; her language sometimes poetic, sometimes brutal, always pitch-perfect. The development of relationships in the book is convincing, and Abbott's characters seem to jump from the page fully formed into the reader's mind.
The combination of that use of language and some really expert plotting creates a dark, menacing air throughout the novel. Like The End of Everything, this is a deeply unsettling novel at times, and many of the scenes involving Beth at her worst are almost unbearable to read.
Abbott's current preoccupation with teenage girls and the power struggles that go on between them is fascinating, and I can't think of another writer who portrays them so vividly. As Coach French tells her squad: "There's something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls."
That line would be enough to drive most narratives on, but Abbott isn't that lazy. As Dare Me progresses, it develops into one of the most deftly plotted noir crime novels I've read in a long time. The requisite twists and turns subtly embedded within her characters' motivations, rather than springing out of nowhere, are the sign of a truly accomplished plotter.
And things escalate – boy, do they escalate. With immense pressure building up on Addy, Beth and Coach French towards the end, the reader is left wondering right up until the final page who's going to win out in an immense battle of wills. Threaded cleverly through all this is the cheerleading element to the story. Abbott uses it as far more than just a backdrop, folding in layers of resonance and meaning throughout, and then bringing it brilliantly into the foreground for the climax. All in all, this is exemplary writing.