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Penance by Eliza Clark: Investigating true crime

This novel is in part a satire on, and a polemic against, those who exploit the deaths of young women for financial gain

Author: Eliza Clark
ISBN-13: 978-0571371761
Publisher: Faber
Guideline Price: £14.99

“I’ve always been very inspired by writers like Capote and Gordon Burn and Brian Masters,” Alec Carelli tell us towards the end of Penance, “and I wanted to elevate the material the way they had.”

Carelli is the narrator of Penance, a disgraced tabloid journalist who now writes true-crime books. His current “material” is the death of 16-year-old Joan Wilson, who “was doused in petrol and set on fire after enduring several hours of torture in a small beach chalet” at the hands of three other teenage girls.

Joan’s death has already been churned through the “true-crime industrial complex”, but Alec wants to offer “a complete picture of all the girls”, setting their stories against “the broader socio-economic context” – Crow-on-Sea, where Joan lived, is a Yorkshire seaside resort gone to seed, and her death occurred on the night of the Brexit referendum in 2016.

A novel about the writing of a true-crime book, Penance weaves interviews with the victim’s family and assailants into podcast excerpts, snippets from the darker corners of the internet and Carelli’s own “elevation” of the truth as its central story explores why Joan Wilson was so brutally targeted by her peers. It’s a clever conceit from Eliza Clark, who was recently included in Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists list: a fiction about fictionalising non-fiction, the novel is in part a satire on, and a polemic against, those who exploit the deaths of young women for financial gain, and further investigates what the popularity of the true-crime genre might say about the culture that spawns it.


In a novel that thrives on its metafictions, Clark leaves it up to the reader to interpret the novel’s central irony, which is that Carelli is something of a straw man, condemned as a grubby opportunist for exploiting Joan Wilson’s horrific death, which Clark herself has invented for the purpose of damning Carelli and his kind.

Ultimately, though, Carelli is low-hanging fruit: despite his literary ambitions, he isn’t especially insightful, and his portrayal of Joan’s assailants – the novel’s crucial trio of Violet, Dolly and Angelica – delivers a surprisingly bland, amorphous mini-tribe of whiny, passive-aggressive bullies who are, as Violet privately concedes, girls “among a million other somewhat sad girls, with no real problems beyond a vague existential angst”.

Declan Burke

Declan Burke

Declan Burke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a novelist and critic