Up until recently, Melissa Pimentel was an author of romance novels. The One That Got Away, her 2016 retelling of Jane Austen's Persuasion, was deemed smart, funny, gripping, hugely enjoyable – good news for any writer. Then, Pimentel wrote a thriller, and it was so different from anything she had published before that she needed a new name.
Thus, Jessica Barry was born – and with her, one of the first great novels of the year. Freefall, published 8 January in the US, has been billed as a debut, though it's not exactly one – it's Barry's first novel, but Pimentel has four books to her name on Amazon. Regardless, this first thriller is a chance for Pimentel/Barry to demonstrate her many strengths as a writer: an eye for detail, an ear for voices, and that little extra bit of soul – a desire to show readers something about our world and those who inhabit it, a quality that breathes life into every word.
Barry’s writing is likely to attract comparisons to Jessica Knoll, the New York Times best-selling author of Luckiest Girl Alive and The Favourite Sister. Allison, her protagonist, has all the hallmarks of a Knoll heroine: a former life, seemingly perfect, now blown apart; a clear – some might say cynical – mind; a determination to survive; and an unforgiving vision of the world. The thought of a yoga class, for Allison, brings back memories of “women lying on their mats, waiting for a man to tell them what they were doing wrong in the name of enlightenment” – one of many flourishes that bring to mind Knoll’s writing.
We meet Allison when she emerges from the wreckage of her fiancé’s aircraft in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. There is a man near her – his face is missing. Her body is bruised, her rations almost non-existent. Yet Allison reminds herself to move, breathe and walk. She has a plan, which takes her trekking in the Rockies in a pair of leggings, a sports bra and a T-shirt, with four Luna bars and a bag of mixed nuts in her bag. Allison walks, sleeps and somehow survives in the Colorado mountains. Anyone in her situation would be desperate for help, but – as we soon learn – Allison doesn’t want to be found. There are men looking for her, and they want her dead.
Back in Maine is Maggie, Allison’s mother, who can’t bring herself to believe – despite what news reports say – that her daughter, from whom she had been estranged for two years, died in a plane crash. Maggie’s voice alternates with Allison’s, allowing Barry to show the full dimensions of her characters, and the complexity of unravelling family dynamics.
It takes a skilled novelist to straddle the practicality of being lost in the mountains (with just four protein bars and whatever survival skills you have managed to glean throughout your life) and the emotional experience of losing oneself. Barry pulls it off beautifully. Her vivid writing means we feel Allison’s pain, her hunger, and her relief whenever she does eat some food.
There is something metaphorical about Allison’s quest to make it out of the Rocky Mountains alive. The precariousness of her situation causes her to reconsider the way she has led her life thus far: “If I get out of this, I’m going to eat the biggest f****** bagel of my entire god-damn life,” she says, “and I’m going to keep eating bagels and Mars bars and eggplant parmesan and whole f****** wheels of cheese, and I will never, ever try to take up less space ever again. I will stretch these limbs of mine out wide and I will not budge, not an inch, not ever again.”
The resolution is full of satisfying twists. The suspense works because it’s intricately tied to Allison’s emotional journey. The ending is unexpected but doesn’t seem far-fetched, mainly because Barry’s masterful writing forces us to suspend our disbelief.
Barry – who grew up in Massachusetts and now lives in London, where she works in the publishing industry – has delivered a scintillating debut. A thrilling second career awaits.
Freefall by Jessica Barry is published by HarperCollins on 8 January in the US and will be released by Penguin on 7 March in the UK
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