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There’s Darkness in All of Us

A review of Megan Miranda’s latest book The Only Survivors, a double mystery with an overshadowing sense of dread.

The Only Survivors, the latest novel by New York Times bestselling author Megan Miranda, is a tale about guilt, trauma and the dark roads a person can be led down in the name of survival. Every year, a group of former classmates meets to commemorate the anniversary of a high school trip gone wrong. Ten years ago, two vans crashed into a river, leaving only nine survivors. In the present, Cassidy Bent is ready to put that tragic event behind her, but she is drawn back to the group at the news of another survivor’s sudden death. Over the course of the weeklong trip, mysteries begin to unfold, relationships are strained, and Cassidy wonders how much trust she should give a group of people who have nothing in common but a single shared trauma.

The Only Survivors is primarily a mystery, but a major part of the narrative is devoted to unraveling what the mystery is. There is no found body, no missing valuable, only a feeling of dread that runs throughout the novel, and every character emits a vague sense of threat. But it’s not until nearly halfway through that you learn what you were meant to be dreading. Rather than uncovering new information, the audience is slowly let on to what the main cast has known all along.

The characters are all somewhat stock, but that is to the benefit of this kind of story. The audience will know who each person is from the moment they first appear, which allows them to quickly understand possible motivations. And although the characters are familiar, they are not without depth—each has both a vulnerability and a darkness to them that is revealed as the story goes on. Additionally, Miranda captures an even deeper sense of life outside of the main cast—the coastal town where the majority of the story is set feels like a real place, one of those tourist towns that is lively during the summer months but nearly dead the rest of the year; and there is an undercurrent of disdain for these yuppie out-of-towners. The feeling of culture and community shown by the locals helps to reinforce the idea that there is a world that exists beyond what the audience is shown.

There are a few moments where the narration stumbles, but it is made up for in the way Miranda plays with traditional storytelling. The Only Survivors actually has two mysteries at play, being told concurrently. There is the mystery of the present day, told sequentially from Cassidy’s point of view; and there is the mystery of the past, told in reverse, with a rotating narrator. These two timelines form a rhythmic verse-chorus structure that almost feels more like an episodic TV series than a novel. While the reveal of the true “culprit” is a bit underwhelming—all of the information falls together in a way that makes sense, but the sense of satisfaction is missing—the true purpose of this reveal seems to be exposing further motivation for the main cast and providing the impetus for the final twist of the past, and in that sense, it does its job perfectly. The Only Survivors is a captivating exploration of the thin line between healing and punishment, and how shared trauma can bring people together, or push them apart.

The Only Survivors is out April 11 and is one of our Spring Reading Picks.

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