Holly Goddard Jones’s debut collection of short stories, Girl Trouble, was set in the meagre town of Roma, Kentucky; now her first novel follows the same community, but draws it together with a murder.
In one sense, though, The Next Time You See Me also feels like a story collection. At first, we follow Susanna, a conventionally unhappy school teacher whose missing sister lived with a wildness that she envies a little, and Emily, a restless, peculiar pupil of hers who chances upon a body in the woods. But the cast quickly expands, and as the book unfolds many more of Roma’s residents are revealed, each living a circumscribed life, albeit bumping into the others, that feels as if it deserves a novel of its own.
Formally, I guess The Next Time You See Me is in fact a thriller, following as it does the aftermath of a killing and the search for the person responsible, but it doesn’t really feel like one. Most readers will feel confident in their guess at the denouement reasonably early on, and Jones isn’t trying to play tricks on us. Her interest, instead, is in the lonely lives of her cast, all experiencing different versions of the same sad fate: drawn together by tragedy in a way that reminds them of what intimacy can be, and fatally denied by the same awful force that makes them long for it so much.
Perhaps their loneliness is the result of their town, a place that judders along to the perpetual rhythm of its factories, and where escape always seems a sweeter option than the hardscrabble business of making a life. Roma, as present as any other character, is described as “neither a bad place nor a nice place”, but whatever its economic status it doesn’t feel like it’s as pleasant as that for its residents.
Nor are they simply worn down by a long, arduous existence. Since the novel orbits a high school, it follows teenagers as intently as adults. It features a lot of bullying, and a lot of yearning; no one lacks at least a shard of goodness, and no one has anything to show for it except bad luck and a heart tainted by regret. Each strand feels fully worked through, a justified exercise in misfortune, but taken as a whole they prompt the question: what about the people who have found a way to be happy? Don’t their inner lives demand description, too?
If the misery is a bit relentless, the prose is pleasurably smooth, confident enough to make you feel that you’re reading a work of literary fiction and not a potboiler. The Next Time You See Me doesn’t do anything enormously surprising or exciting. But in its predictability it finds the space to explore a question as tender as the people it watches with such care: whether our cruellest instincts define us, or whether we can hope to be remembered as our best and most optimistic selves.