Baggage by S.G. Redling (Thomas & Mercer-Feb. 9th, 2016)-I honestly had no idea what I was getting into with Baggage, and I’m kind of glad, because it snuck up on me in the best way. It begins innocuously enough: Anna Ray loves her new job at West Virginia’s Eastern Allegheny College as a Student Development Advocate, and enjoys working with her boss, Meredith, even if she is a bit nosy. It’s just the thing to keep her mind off of the bad things that tend to follow her, but when a man’s body turns up in the school basement, minus his hands, Anna is stunned. It doesn’t help that the man had been pursuing her, putting her on the suspect list. What follows is an intense cat and mouse, not only between Anna and whatever evil seems to have her in its sights, but against herself. I kept wondering what could be so horrible (aside from her husband’s suicide a year ago), that Anna drinks (a lot-mostly with her beloved cousin Jeannie, who is more like a sister), and at times wakes up in her bathtub, with no memory of the night before. We get her childhood story in fits and starts, and when the horrifying, heartbreaking event is finally revealed, it definitely explains why poor Anna is a bit of a mess. But boy is she a fighter.
Baggage is a crackling murder mystery, but at its core, it’s the story of a woman that has endured more pain than one person should have to handle, and her voice is one of tremendous courage,even as she readily acknowledges her weaknesses. She even manages to keep her wry sense of humor intact. Her relationship with Jeannie is delightful, even if it is codependent-but Anna is ok with that. Anna narrates, and you’ll wonder, at times, if she’s a reliable narrator, but that only adds to the suspense. I promise, you won’t see where this one is going. Anna’s story is a heartbreaking one, and yet… Anna is nobody’s victim, that’s for sure. Redling’s beautiful writing is psychologically astute, exploring the ravages of mental illness, not only for the person that suffers from it, but the fallout for those that love them. This is a mature novel that is elevated far above the average thriller, and will especially appeal to fans of Harry Bingham’s Fiona Griffiths and Bill Loehfelm’s Maureen Coughlin. Utterly fantastic.