Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Wednesday, February 25, 2015: Maximum Shelf: The Bullet

Gallery Books: The Bullet by Mary Louise Kelly

Gallery Books: The Bullet by Mary Louise Kelly

Gallery Books: The Great Zoo of China by Matthew Reilly

Gallery Books: Monday's Lie by Jamie Mason

The Bullet

by Mary Louise Kelly

Mary Louise Kelly's second novel, The Bullet, doesn't take long to build up to the suspense: fewer than 10 pages in, Kelly's protagonist, Caroline Cashion, goes for an MRI to assess what could be causing a persistent pain in her wrist, and is startled when the technician asks her how she came to have a bullet in her neck. Though Caroline chalks it up to a mistake, further x-rays reveal that, yes, she really does have a bullet in her neck--and absolutely no memory of how it got there. She naturally turns to her parents, with whom she is very close, for an explanation, and is startled to learn that she is adopted, that her biological parents were murdered, and that the bullet in her neck is in fact the same bullet that killed her mother.

This knowledge is a dividing point in Caroline's life: before the bullet, she was a play-by-the-rules professor of French literature at Georgetown who had weekly dinners with her parents. After the bullet, she realizes she is no longer certain who she is. "You think you know someone," she says. "And then, at thirty-seven, you grow up."

At the very beginning of the novel, Caroline promises readers "a story about fear." The Bullet is that: the story of a woman with more to be afraid of than she ever could have imagined. But it is the way this fear pushes Caroline to "grow up," as she puts it, that comprises the most interesting parts of Kelly's well-plotted novel. Armed with scraps of knowledge about her parents' deaths and the fact that she is walking around with evidence in her neck--evidence some murderer could potentially want to prevent from falling into the hands of the police--she is willing to do everything possible to find out what happened to her parents all those years ago.

She takes a leave of absence from her teaching position and flies to Atlanta to visit the house she once lived in--the house her parents died in. She meets her once-neighbors, digs around in the archives of the local paper and talks to the detective who worked on her parents' case. When nothing gets her the information she wants, though, she takes matters into her own hands, pushing Kelly's story toward a conclusion that is at once shocking and yet entirely believable.

Perhaps even more fascinating than the story of the bullet itself, though, is seeing how Caroline interacts with those around her. Kelly's secondary characters are as well defined and multi-layered as her protagonist: the aging, slightly inappropriate journalist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the young, hip newspaper archivist at the same office; the doctor who listens to country music and drives a red Jeep and just might have a thing for Caroline; the Southern belle next-door neighbor who tells Caroline stories about her biological parents; the two loving and protective older brothers who are as supportive of Caroline as they are hard on her.

And as Caroline grows into her knowledge of her past, her relationships with each of these individuals--and others--shifts and changes and grows as well. Kelly deftly explores how Caroline's relationship with her adoptive parents, always close, adjusts to their newly shared knowledge. Caroline's brothers step up to support Caroline in her most desperate moments in ways that only siblings can, whether it be covering for her to their parents or sharing much-needed shots of rye at the local bar. Caroline herself starts pushing back in new ways on some of the forces working against her in Atlanta.

The Bullet marks a different tack for Kelly, whose debut novel, Anonymous Sources, was a political thriller complete with terrorist threats and international spies. But the lack of political intrigue in The Bullet does not mean it lacks suspense; instead, its slow psychological build is riveting, and The Bullet is relentless in its twists and turns.

All of this is brought to life in language grounded in fact and reality, clearly drawn from Kelly's experience as a journalist (she spent two decades working as an international news correspondent for NPR and the BBC). The places Caroline visits shine with enough detail to make them feel real--Kelly visited each locale featured in The Bullet while working on the manuscript—but never so much as to feel cumbersome. The dialogue serves to move the story forward without feeling forced or unnatural. And the psychological exploration of what resources we can find within us in moments of extreme stress feels so authentic as to leave us wondering what we ourselves might have within us, if we were ever pushed to reach for it. --Kerry McHugh


Gallery Books, $26, hardcover, 9781476769813, March 2015

Gallery Books: Losing Faith by Adam Mitzner

Mary Louise Kelly: Surprising Herself

Photo: Katarina Price

Mary Louise Kelly spent two decades working as a reporter for NPR and the BBC. Her debut novel, Anonymous Sources (Gallery Books, March 2014), featured terrorist plots and international spies; her second novel, The Bullet (Gallery Books, March 2015) is a psychological drama about a woman who learns at the age of 37 that she has a bullet embedded in her neck. Kelly lives, writes and drinks tea in Washington, D.C., and Florence, Italy, with her husband and two sons.

The suspense of The Bullet stems from the idea that your protagonist, Caroline, discovers at age 37 that she has a bullet lodged in her neck: Where did that idea come from?

It's actually based on a true story. A few years ago, at one of my son's Little League games, another mom plopped down next to me, held up her wrist, which had a brace on it, and explained that she'd been having wrist pain that wasn't getting any better with treatments. So she went for an MRI to find out what was going on, and when she came out, the technician said, "Oh my god, how did you get it?" And she said, "How did I get what?" The technician said, "The bullet. How did you get a bullet in your neck?"

The reporter in me was curious. She didn't have a scar and she had no idea how it could have gotten there. That was several years ago, and I haven't spoken to her since, so I have no idea what happened, but as I drove home from that game, I thought, "That's a great story."

You used the idea of the discovered bullet in such an interesting way.

I started out writing this and I wasn't quite sure how the bullet was going to get in Caroline's neck. I had some ideas, but I wasn't sure how exactly it would all unfold. That was a very different way of writing than in my first novel, Anonymous Sources, where I mapped everything out and then planted red herrings along the way. In this one I was kind of surprised myself.

Anonymous Sources is a political thriller, while The Bullet is much more of a psychological drama. Was it vastly different writing this kind of psychological suspense versus one based in political intrigue, terrorist plots and spies?

It wasn't vastly different. I subscribe to the "write what you know" theory and the "write what you're interested in learning about" theory. I am a reporter, and I approached writing fiction in both of my books in somewhat the same vein that I approached writing a story for NPR. I wanted to get all of the facts right: I did the reporting, I talked to people, and I tried to make it as authentic as I possibly could.

The way you describe places and settings in your writing feels very real.

It's one of those tricks of being a fiction writer or a journalist, figuring out which details you share to bring a story to life. Nobody has the patience for you to describe a hotel room or a newsroom or a restaurant for 10 pages--you just want to learn what happens next. But as a writer, I try to figure out what one or two details I can share to really bring a place to life as the story unfolds. And that's really fun to try to figure out: How would you describe the smell of a place? The color? The sound? It's how you use language to evoke and paint a picture in the readers' mind.

At the start of the novel, Caroline is quiet and reserved and always plays by the rules. But when she learns about the bullet, it starts her on a path that changes her in very fundamental ways.

This is a theme that really interests me: the idea of how well we know ourselves and what we're capable of. I am always amazed how in truly stressful situations people react in different ways, and how that can free other sides of a personality that you did not know were there. Sure, some people are pure evil or pure goodness, but to be honest, they're not that interesting to write about. It's the complexities and contradictions that we all carry that are so interesting.

In what ways is Caroline's story a belated coming-of-age story? Can one "come of age" in their 30s?

It is a coming-of-age novel in the sense that all of us, in our moments, are capable of extraordinary growth. Sometimes it's only when you look back and realize you're in a very different place than you were a decade ago that you notice the change you missed as you were plodding along. But sometimes there is an extraordinary moment in your life, for better or for worse, when you realize you'll never be the same again. And that's what happens to Caroline, when her life cleaves into two chapters: before she knew and after.

I think it was interesting to me to explore how it is only by learning about her past that Caroline really grows up and separates from her parents, and begins to carve out an identity that is truly her own.

Alexandra James, the journalist at the center of your first novel, makes a brief appearance in The Bullet. Did you plan that going into to the story?

I didn't plan at all to give her a cameo, but I needed a reporter to make an appearance for plot device purposes, and I thought, "Why not?"

As a novelist, you live with your protagonists for months: they get in your head, and you hear their voices rattling around as you go through your daily routine. You're focused on your characters and what makes them tick, and what they would say in a situation. With all the work that goes into creating a true 360-degree, dimensional character, I figured I might as well have her show up again. There are a couple others from Anonymous Sources that would be fun to write again.

Does that mean you have more novels in the works?

A few things, but nothing I'm ready to share yet. I came to writing novels after two decades as a reporter doing international news and international security news, and that could not be a more different job than writing fiction. I really like them both, and continue to miss being a reporter. I've actually taken a lot more journalism assignments in the last few months, since turning in the manuscript for The Bullet, and I'm having fun. Either because it is an end unto itself, or because it provides the seeds for the next work of fiction... we shall see. – Kerry McHugh

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