'Pyres', the first novel by short story writer Derek Nikitas, is billed
on the front cover as a "heartbreaking coming-of-age story and
a gripping psychological thriller". It is certainly both. But
it's also an immensely powerful, emotionally gripping, crime-and-consequence
story of three female characters, ranging from teen age to middle
age, who face circumstances and make choices that will forever alter
Nearly 16 year-old Lucia Moberg gets her professor father to drive her
to the mall where she steals a few CDs for her friends. In the mall parking
lot as they're ready to return home, Luc's father is brutally gunned
down, the apparent victim of a botched robbery. Thus begins a series
of events that grows ever more frightening and ever more violent as each
twist unfolds. From her mother's attempted suicide to her own capture
and torturous escape, Luc's "coming of age" story is unrelenting
in its ferocity - a bleak nightmare that resolves far more positively
than one would ever expect it ever could.
Nikitas tells his story from the points of view of three complicated,
conflicted female characters. Lucia, a mixture of bravery, bravura, and
conflicted adolescent understanding, is the centerpiece. Traumatized
by her father's death, angered by her mother's suicide attempt, lusting
for the boy next door, Luc is but one short step from emotional meltdown.
Visions from her father's Swedish heritage, initially an apparent product
of her fragile emotional state, ultimately lead her to survival and provide
an ongoing surreal element to the narrative, a bit reminiscent of a John
Connolly Charlie Parker novel.
Pregnant teen Tanya, a none-too-smart lowlife, has been rescued from
a life of drugs and prostitution by her outlaw boyfriend with the promise
of the safety and security of a family – ultimately, a perverse
pseudo-family for which she will pay a heavy, heavy price. Investigating
the professor's murder is police officer Greta Hurd, a world-weary cop
who's seen way more violence and misery than she's able to handle, and
who shoulders her own set of familial problems.
As the plot unfolds, these three women are forced by extreme circumstances
to make one painful and exceptional choice after the other, each ultimately
tossing aside morality to embrace survival. Though gruesome and loaded
with vividly described violence, the compelling finale mandates that
the reader keep turning the pages, faster, faster, to find out who, if
anyone, survives, and how.
Nikitas is an assured and controlled writer with a vivid imagination
and a remarkable ability to mind-meld with characters of neither his
own gender or own age and render them in realistic detail. Though told
from three points of view, the story blends smoothly and seamlessly.
While not for the feint of heart, the bloody violence in 'Pyres' is an
essential part of the suspense and seriousness that packs the narrative
punch. That a story so sincerely dark, so frequently terrifying, should
end with such optimism is a surprise – and a welcome one. Tough
reading – yes; immersive reading – definitely; recommended
reading - absolutely.
'Pyres' has just been nominated for an Edgar in the Best First Novel