by Alex Clarke

Kate Brody’s debut novel Rabbit Hole opens with a thump. Teddy Angstrom stands at the edge of a bridge with her Irish-American mother, watching the state authorities dredge her father’s car from the riverbank. He has died by suicide on the ten-year anniversary of her sister Angie’s unsolved disappearance.

Adrift, Teddy begins to puzzle apart the mess her father left behind and travels a well-worn path – echoes of her sister’s disappearance pop up wherever she looks, and she grapples, for the second time in ten years, with the aching hollowness of being left behind by someone she didn’t quite understand. Other than the vast and dusty corners of the internet, the only comfort she has is in an aloof, dissociated mother and their tumor-riddled dog, Wolf. Teddy muses about the dog, who once belonged to her sister, “Sometimes it seems like part of Angie is inside of him. Or he relays messages to her. Or she can hear me when I talk to him. I know it’s only magical thinking. I can only really acknowledge that I believe this when I’m drunk.”

Booze, and its numbing, seductive effects, is another one of Teddy’s comforts. “I love driving when I’m a tiny bit loaded,” she says. “When everything just slides by in a streak of yellow streetlights and white lines.” Following Teddy’s investigative trail is a bit like following those streaks of yellow streetlights and white lines – dizzying and irresistible. We find out how deeply addicted to drugs her dad was, and how his obsession with Angie’s disappearance cost him his life in the here and now. Like her dad before her, Teddy flirts with disaster and danger, sleeping with an older man who may or may not have groomed her sister, and placing her trust in Mickey, an edgy teenager who’s unhealthily obsessed with Teddy’s family.

Kate Brody writes with urgency, forcing readers to face the ugly parts of themselves much the way grief does. From the get-go, I wondered how Teddy and her mother could be more concerned with Wolf’s cancer than the sudden suicide of a man they loved. I judged Teddy for going back to her job teaching English at a prestigious high school instead of taking the time to grieve. I judged her for not being more careful with who she invited into her life – and for the ways she ignored the red flags that popped up around her with increasing frequency.

But while I judged Teddy, I also fell into the rabbit hole with her. Like her, I’m a millennial who came of age in the days of AIM, MSN Messenger, and MySpace. My generation’s cultural consciousness developed alongside Facebook’s meteoric rise, marked by a curiosity that devolves into fear mongering and that uncanny feeling of being surveilled. In the absence of a supportive framework or cultural tradition that would hold Teddy in her complex, serpentine experience of grief, it makes sense to me that she turns to Reddit and her sister’s long-abandoned MySpace page. Forget seances and mediums – it’s through the dark corners of the Internet that we seek to connect with the dead.

With anything at all, for that matter.

Each step Teddy takes toward understanding what happened to her sister feels imminently reasonable, if not entirely relatable. I ripped through the pages, slack jawed, as she sets off  trip wire after trip wire by digging too deeply into her sister’s cold case on Reddit. Yet despite the looming danger, she keeps digging – as if by digging deep enough, she’ll find out why her sister and her dad both left her behind. She hides the extent of her obsession from her co-dependent mother in order to protect her from the gritty truths about the man they loved. Because even though Teddy does not venerate her mother, she feels deep empathy for her many losses, including the death of her first husband when she was a teenager. “The way I figure it,” Teddy explains, “the melancholy must have soaked into her marrow. Because by the time we met – she and I – years later, it was present in every cell, every wrinkle and crease. Like a fingerprint. Like a perfume I know her by. It feels like home.”

There’s a twang of melancholy in nearly everything that Teddy touches, but it never reads as overwhelming. Just like in Danya Kukafka’s Notes on an Execution, the study of a serial killer and the women in his life, Rabbit Hole is beset with a northeastern chill that seeps into your bones like the frozen wintry wind. It also throws readers’ ostensible obsession with the death and destruction of teenage girls in our faces: “There would be no story,” one of Kukafka’s narrators opines, “for these girls alone. There would be no vigil, no attention at all. They are relevant because of [the killer] and the fascination the world has for men like him.” Rabbit Hole and Notes on an Execution both ask the reader: does your fascination with these kinds of stories make you complicit?

While reading Rabbit Hole and Notes, I couldn’t help but think about the podcast You’re Wrong About. The show puzzles apart the salacious stories exploited by pop culture’s obsession with famous (mostly female) stars, tragically tangled in the limelight. The hosts turn everything we thought we knew about women like Anna Nicole Smith, Yoko Ono, and Tonya Harding on its head, forcing listeners to stare down their own Schadenfreude-swollen faces in the mirror. You’re Wrong About mirrors the podcast hosted by the main character in Rebecca Makkai’s I Have Some Questions For You, which features leading women in film and the unfair ways they’ve been treated by media and fans alike. The taut pacing and hypocrisy of academia in I Have Some Questions For You is echoed in Rabbit Hole both featuring fierce female protagonists who stumble around in the dark to make sense of a murky, threatening event in their pasts. But while Makkai’s protagonist Bodie is on a mission to address the misdeeds visited upon the girls in her graduating class, Teddy’s focus is closer to home. It feels personal.

The personal is what Kate Brody does so well. Dream-like and shape-shifting, Rabbit Hole left me pleasantly disoriented at times, wondering until the last moment who was to be trusted. Teddy’s haphazard, reckless investigation captivated me in the way only true crime can – the promise that if we’re resourceful enough, devious enough, clever enough, we’ll be able to wrap unanswered questions in a nice bow and present them to our teachers, our parents, our bosses and say, Here’s the solution. I’m good enough, right? It’s a promise that still tempts me when I look at what’s going on in the world right now: another war; another corrupt corporate power evading environmental regulations; another generation’s mental health ravaged by technology and rapid industrial growth with no endgame in sight.

But in the end, Rabbit Hole is not an after-the-fact podcast or six-part true crime documentary. It’s one woman’s deeply personal descent into gritty truths about her long-lost sister, her dead father, and herself – and just as in real life, those truths are rarely as cut and dry as we want them to be. Because no matter how many times we click to open just “63 more replies” on a Reddit thread, we’ll always be left with unanswered questions. Inevitably, we all have to live with the not-knowing. And in the wise words of Teddy, “The only way out is through, right?”