Six year old Allison Jensen is witness to the abduction and murder of her friend Cindi; the assailant is a bearded man with a shotgun. That he terrorizes the girls isn’t a surprise; the fact that he gets away with murder is. Setting is crucial to most novels, more so for this one. Cindi was killed in Utah where the Mormon church is the shadow government and where crime and punishment aren’t always the province of victim and perpetrator or even police and the courts.
The novel traces Allie’s development from six year old girl to her early twenties. The first half of the book describes the aftermath of Allie’s ordeal; it dwells on her father’s iron fisted rule and the community’s unwillingness to seek the truth about Cindi’s murder. These chapters follow Allie through a tumultuous childhood culminating in the death of her mother; she and her siblings are left with dad, a man for whom faith is a substitute for thought.
WIVES AND SISTERS reads like a diary from an exotic place with bizarre customs and the authoritarian trappings of modern day Iran. The author has a background in journalism that influences her style from the beginning; the prose is clear and direct, no punches pulled. The lead is never buried; each chapter has an opening paragraph that hooks the reader into the story. In the latter half of the book this style starts to work against the power of the story. So much occurs that the reader, let alone the main character, suffers from too many major events presented in a cascading style that doesn’t pause to allow much reflection or assimilation. Because the pacing is so relentless it feels less like a novel and more like a memoir.
Despite those problems the book offers a unique perspective into Mormon life and tells a compelling story. As dramatic and eventful as it is, WIVES AND SISTERS unravels the mystery behind Cindi’s death in a courageous and unflinching debut.