New York Times bestselling author Kate Moretti’s previous book, The Vanishing Year, was a pacey and suspenseful read that combined twisted secrets, damaging lies and marital deceit to great effect. The Blackbird Season is Moretti’s fifth novel and her best one yet, as it surrounds a small-town scandal and a troubled teenage runaway with the power to ruin multiple lives.

In the quiet Pennsylvania town of Mt. Oanoke nothing ever changes. Until one day a thousand starlings fall from the sky, landing on the high school playing field, dead. Journalists arrive at the school with their microphones and cameras, but one particular reporter gets a bigger scoop than she could have imagined: An affair between a teacher and his female student. When the story breaks, shockwaves ripple through the tight-knit community and Nate Winters, the superstar teacher and baseball coach accused of abusing his respected position, finds his life and marriage ripped apart.

Things take an even darker and more damning direction when Lucia, the student who corroborated her supposed affair with Nate, disappears and there’s only one logical suspect according to the school, the other students and the small-minded townsfolk: the man whose life she wrecked. Alecia, Nate’s wife, doesn’t know what to believe, whilst Bridget, Nate’s co-worker, knows there’s much more to the story and isn’t willing to give up on her friend until she gets definitive proof that he’s guilty.

“Where did they come from? Why did they fall? The question would be asked a thousand times over the course of the next month. Until, of course, more important questions arose, at which time everyone promptly forgot a thousand birds fell on the town of Mt. Oanoke at all.”

Swinging between the weeks before the birds fell and the weeks after, we get different accounts of events from the perspectives of Nate, Alecia, Bridget and Lucia herself. What emerges from each of their stories is the bigger picture, a disturbing tale of neglect, bullying and the liberties taken by privileged people who believe there aren’t consequences for their actions. Each of the characters is a victim in one way or another; victims of abuse, victims of circumstance and victims of their own foolishness. You’ll feel sorry for a character one minute and angry with them the next, and this emotional rollercoaster continues throughout the book.

The Blackbird Season is both a slow-burning thriller and an engaging drama, throwing you into the centre of the scandal within the opening chapters and keeping you hooked until the very end. Really astute readers may put two and two together midway through but, for the most part, Moretti has crafted a story that’s surprising, thrilling and, at certain points, palpably distressing. The power of the tale comes from the fact that neither Nate nor Lucia seem particularly reliable; one could be telling the truth, or they could both be telling the truth from their respective viewpoints. Or, the third and more disconcerting option, they could both be lying.

In many ways, Nate feels almost secondary to the story, though his actions are what fuel the plot. The more intriguing perspectives are those of the women; Alecia, the scorned wife and struggling mother to an autistic child; Bridget, the stalwart friend and lonely widow; and Lucia, the troubled young woman with the world against her. Moretti explores family dynamics and the secrets people keep, all the while creating a suspenseful atmosphere that’s evocative of the claustrophobic small-town life where everyone knows everyone else’s business and you’re guilty the very moment someone points the finger.

This is an absorbing story with compelling characters that make mistakes and hurt the ones closest to them. It’s another intelligent and perceptive mystery from an author who captures the best and worst of people.

★★★★

The Blackbird Season was published by Titan Books on 26 September 2017

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