Caitlin Mullen, Please See Us (2020)
Review by Lee Horsley
As readers of Caitlin Mullen’s Please See Us, we are drawn into the lives of women who are unseen – consigned to the impoverished underside of a decaying city, vulnerable to casual abuse and unspeakable violence. Mullen’s lyrical, suspenseful psychological thriller compels our attention, telling their stories with both precision and compassion.
Mullen’s protagonists, Lily and Clara, are very unlike one another, but both struggling to build new lives for themselves. They are brought together under the extreme pressure of violent events, desperate to work out what has been happening and terrified that they may themselves become victims. Lily reflects, “I was so tired of being afraid. And yet, it seemed that was all this summer was: learning all of the ways that dread could creep into my days.”
For the reader, the sense of danger that haunts the two women is known to be a grim reality. Much of Mullen’s narrative alternates between the perspectives of Clara and Lily, but we also hear the voices of “the Janes”, dead girls whose as yet undiscovered bodies have been posed by their killer in the marshland behind a seedy motel:
“They sense the shift in the wind during the final stretches of July…Then, the ocean will brew storms, hurricanes that surge their way up the coast. Wind that tears at the grass, tides that could scatter them, wash away what’s left. They think this means they’re running out of time. Time to tell their stories, time to be heard. They plead again for someone to see before it’s too late.”
Clara, a teenage psychic who gives tarot readings on the boardwalk, has real and disturbing visions – glimpses of the deaths that haunt Atlantic City, fleeting images of a girl called Julie and of the Jane Does who lie waiting for someone to find them. She feels transported outside of herself, to the mud and grass of the marsh, where she sees the bruised arms and legs of the women’s bodies, stray sparkles of jewelry, and the flies that swarm everywhere. She thinks about leaving Atlantic City, but feels compelled to stay until she has “figured out what these visions meant…It seemed wrong, unfair to all of the women, to take off like they didn’t matter. Like I wasn’t carrying around pieces of their lives.”
The backdrop of Atlantic City is powerfully created, giving us an affecting sense of this fading, crumbling, once glamorous place. The image of the city is partly conveyed through the paintings of an unknown artist whose work Lily discovers. His art captures the past of the city in the eighties and nineties – “the big hair, the bulky costume jewelry, bright as candy, the saturated colors” – and also the city as it has become, “the entropy, the slow creep of decay,” a place plagued by “corruption, addiction, recession”. We ultimately also enter the perspective of the artist, who knows he can’t save the women, but who wants to “show everyone just how cruel, how ugly and wrong this city has become.”
Please See Us is an extraordinary debut novel. Caitlin Mullen has shown herself able to create a literary thriller that contains both a completely absorbing crime narrative and a beautifully nuanced reflection on the “ruined dream” of a city in decline. We’re very much looking forward to her future novels.