Bright and Tender Dark

Joanna Pearson's intricate debut novel, Bright and Tender Dark, nimbly ties in true-crime tropes as it traces the ripple effects of a college student's murder in 2000.

Karlie Richards, a popular 19-year-old University of North Carolina freshman, was a leader in the campus evangelical group. When she was found strangled to death in her apartment, Toby Braithwaite, an intellectually disabled man who worked at a local diner and had a crush on Karlie, was arrested. He's jailed for the crime, though he's widely believed to be innocent.

The framing story, set two decades later, in 2019, has Karlie's freshman roommate, Joy Brunner, finding an unopened letter from Karlie addressed to her in an old book. The amateur investigation spurred by the letter turns into a writing project that offers Joy fresh purpose, but Joy's obsession endangers her mental health.

Multiple, often unexpected third-person limited perspectives contribute vital clues, although they threaten to overcomplicate the narrative. Pearson contrasts 1999 and 2019 via documents that include newspaper articles and Reddit threads, portraying the dangers of the social media era through a vicious online debate and an incriminating viral video.

Religion takes on major significance here. The title's oxymoron juxtaposes light and dark, good versus evil, but the situation is subtler. Ambivalence reigns: Joy is a missionary's daughter whose father's advancing illness eroded her faith; Karlie questioned everything; another character escapes a cult. It all makes for a convincing--if bleak--post-religious landscape, but Bright and Tender Dark's many facets mesh satisfyingly by the end. This is a perfect choice for true-crime readers of I Have Some Questions for You and My Dark Vanessa. --Rebecca Foster, freelance reviewer, proofreader and blogger at Bookish Beck

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