Published by Doubleday Books
Publication date: April 25th 2017
When you are eight-years-old the lines between what is real and what is imagined can still get blurred. So, it might be difficult for Miles to explain to police that he saw a man wearing a chicken mask kill his mother. Except that his statement isn’t even needed—the mask is found in the family’s garage and his father is booked on a murder charge. He commits suicide in jail, but Miles firmly believes in his father’s innocence and in the existence of the Chicken Man. This is the explosive opening of Jennifer McMahon’s new novel, Burntown, a thriller that plays with the always interesting subject of childhood perception versus reality.
Fast forward thirty-five years and Miles’s story has already run its course and his teenage daughter, Eva is the new narrator. She lives on the streets, where she ended up after her father and brother died in a flood near their home and her mother later killed herself jumping off a bridge. She has no memory of her childhood, only of the years after the flood when she and her increasingly erratic mother lived in hiding, from someone she called the Chicken Man. Eva had forgotten her mother’s warning, but then life gets complicated. Her boyfriend is murdered and she’s the main suspect—on the run with a backpack filled with money and drugs that don’t belong to her. Plenty of people are looking for her and at least one of them wants her dead.
McMahon is known for inventive attention-holding stories, but her last novel veered so far into supernatural territory that it lost me along the way. In Burntown she’s back on track with a paranormal element that, while critical to the plot, doesn’t overwhelm it. In fact, it falls into that fabulous this-can’t-be-real-or-could-it? space—when you know rationally something is not possible, but it’s still really cool to think about. This return to restraint on McMahon’s part keeps the novel’s kooky and eccentric characters at center stage and gives the story its life. For those who like blowout fantasy/evil from McMahon Burntown will not be a favorite, but I appreciated a return to the human touch.