In the late 1990s, high school grads Toni and Ryan go off for a night of romance, with Toni’s kid sister Nicole tagging along. The next morning, Nicole is found violently murdered and the subsequent investigation sends both Toni and Ryan to prison for the next sixteen years. Now released, Toni finds herself back in her hometown, wondering who really killed her sister, even as the bullies from her high school and prison days ramp up their efforts to bring her down.
Chevy Stevens’ fourth book delivers in the vein of Linwood Barclay or a less violent Tess Gerritsen, in what might have been a run-of-the-mill “who framed me?” thriller if not for a few well-shaped aspects. The first is that the two-pronged approach to the story (we follow Toni in 1996 and in 2013) provides us with a background of character, setting, and tone that makes us feel like we know Toni, even as she pays for crimes she didn’t commit. The second is that Stevens weaves in the familial context of Toni and her relationship with her parents, stirring up in us the good and bad emotional attachments of our own teenage years. And the third is that the story focuses on bullying, in the home, in the schools, and in prison itself.
After reading the first fifty pages, I sat down for the next fifty or so… and couldn’t put the book down until I was done. Stevens made me sweat for Toni, even as I wondered if we were listening to a reliable narrator or not (were we buying into the ‘everyone thinks they’re innocent’ or not?) I wanted to know who killed Nicole, but even by the end of the first third when I had a pretty decent idea who had, I wanted to know why, just like the television show Motive. But in the end, much of the story boils down to the way that we deal with our own pain, and how we choose to either inflict our hurts on someone else or learn to forgive, let them go.
This is not a hard read, but there is a lot going on here. Whether you like the flipping back and forth or not, between times, you’re sure to recognize the reality that what we do and who we associate with impacts the trust level people have for us. Does Toni deserve to be branded a murderer? No. Were there things about her life that she could’ve done better to create more trust within her family and community? Yes. Ultimately, that’s a passing warning compared to the complexity of the bullying issue here.
Several of the teens in 1996 are bullied, emotionally or physically, at home; a Mean Girls-like pack of girls in the high school takes to bullying other teens, but they are aided and abetted at times by parental naiveté and peer fear. The same proves to be true for Toni when she gets to prison, and later, a halfway house. Bullying short circuits the community’s ability to respond directly because too many individuals live in fear. It’s only when someone chooses to break the cycle, to respond without fear in peace and love, that the pattern is broken.
I enjoyed the emotional payoff as much as the justice aspect of That Night. Stevens’ characters seemed real enough, and didn’t make any of the “that would never happen” decisions that I’ve come to fear in some of these thriller novels. We want Toni to succeed, on a community level and on an individual one. Thanks to Stevens’ portrayal, Toni does both.