Book Review: Wicker (AKA Cast of Shadows) by Kevin Guilfoile

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Wicker is the story of a closely connected group of people all impacted by the rape and murder of seventeen-year-old Anna Kat Moore. It’s set in a not-too-distant future where the possibilities of DNA seem limitless. The cloning of dead people is considered just another fertility treatment, usually for couples unable to conceive at all or with hereditary diseases they don’t want to pass on to natural children.

A couple of years after Anna Kat’s murder, it still remains unsolved and Dr Davis Moore, her father and a cloning specialist, asks the police to return Anna Kat’s personal belongings. When they arrive, they mistakenly include a vial of the killer’s DNA. He thinks about it for a while and then uses the DNA to create a clone, hoping to one day look into the eyes of his daughter’s killer.

Martha Finn is the woman who is unwittingly drawn into Davis Moore’s plans. She has a family history of Huntington’s disease and so has a cloned embryo implanted. She thinks her child is the clone of a beloved son who died in a skiing accident. All clones are supposed to be replicas of dead people only.

And so we watch as Justin Finn is born and grows up. He’s intelligent and unusual and skips several grades. Even as a child, he reads philosophical texts in his spare time. Davis has a private detective take photographs of him and uses a computer program to age him, to come up with a sketch of what Anna Kat’s murderer might look like all grown up. And then he tries to track him down.

By the time Justin is fifteen, he’s obsessed with a local serial killer called the Wicker Man. And Davis starts to worry about who exactly he has recreated. Is it all in the genes? Or will Martha’s nurturing of Justin overcome the nature of his origins? There are going to be unintended consequences of this experiment. Does the end justify the means?

This isn’t a typical crime novel. The blurb describes it as a thriller, which it is in some respects. However, the thrills are a long time coming; it’s a slow burn but it manages to build an awful sense of dread as the story unfolds. The politics of cloning are eerily similar to the politics of abortion in the US with religious extremist groups perpetrating bombings and shootings. Davis Moore himself is shot at the very beginning of the book but recovers and refuses to give up his career.

The writing is wonderful, the multitudes of characters are complex, flawed and interesting, and the story certainly makes the reader stop and think. There isn’t a single person in this book who is wholly good or wholly bad but they are all wholly fascinating to read about.

Perhaps the biggest problem I had with the plot was why Davis Moore didn’t just clone his own daughter. Choosing instead to clone her killer, with the fraught possibilities that could bring, seemed strange. Yes, he was overcome with grief but still… But once you get past the ridiculousness of that plot point, once you accept it, everything that follows afterwards is intriguing. And while the ending isn’t Hollywood, it’s certainly poetic.

I know this book won’t be for everyone. There will almost certainly be people who complain about the ludicrousness of the plot (aren’t there always?). There will almost certainly be people who complain about the ending (because it isn’t perfectly, neatly tied up). But it’s certainly a few rungs above the paint-by-numbers crime stories, thrillers and mysteries that are written in their thousands each year.

This book, his first, was published in 2005 and Kevin Guilfoile has published a couple of other books since which, based on this effort, I would certainly be interested to read.

3 stars

*First published on Goodreads 27 May 2016

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