A review of The Murderer’s Daughters by Randy Susan Meyers

Reviewed by Jenny Mounfield

The Murderer’s Daughters
by Randy Susan Meyers
St Martin’s Griffin
Format: Trade paperback, Price: US $14.99, ISBN: 978-0-312-67443-4

‘I wasn’t surprised when Mama asked me to save her life. By my first week in kindergarten, I knew she was no macaroni-necklace wearing kind of mother. Essentially, Mama regarded me as a miniature hand servant.’

At age ten, Lulu makes a decision that will change her family’s life forever and haunt her for years to come: After being instructed by her mother to never, under any circumstances, let her father into their flat, she does exactly that. What follows is a violent argument which results in her mother’s murder and the stabbing of her five-year old sister, Merry.

Their father—a weak, needy man whose crime was committed because he couldn’t let go—is imprisoned and the sisters are passed from one relative to another. Seen as a reminder of what their father has done, Lu and Merry are eventually placed in care. The final rejection of her aunt and uncle toughens Lu, yet leaves Merry all the more vulnerable. She doesn’t cope well with institutional life and until the death of her paternal grandmother, lives for the days she can visit her father in prison. The relationship with her father is a volatile mix of love, hate and a need for acceptance that will only increase and fester with time. Deep down Merry blames herself for the injuries her father inflicted on her and will spend years showing her loyalty to this man as a way of gaining salvation. Lu, on the other hand, only feels hatred for her father and refuses to acknowledge his existence, let alone visit him. Interestingly, this situation should tear the sisters apart, and while at times it puts a tremendous strain on their relationship, it never does.

After a number of years in the orphanage the sisters are fostered by social worker, Anne Cohan. With grown children, Anne and her husband attempt to give the girls the family they’re lacking, but sadly too much has transpired for Lu and Merry to fully trust these people. Believing the Cohan’s only want them around as a social service project, Lu becomes increasingly resentful of their attention. Thankfully she’s able to turn this energy into something productive: study, and goes on to qualify as a medical doctor. Merry, too, finds her way into a profession that mirrors her own life by becoming a victim witness advocate for Victim Services. It’s through her work that Merry gradually learns to face her demons. As a doctor Lu, too, makes it her life’s goal to save as many of the suffering as she can, a worthy goal, yet one that no matter how hard she tries will never make up for her guilt over not saving her mother and Merry.

Lu manages to find happiness with Drew and gives birth to two daughters, Cassandra and Ruby. Determined that her children will have the perfect family life she never had, Lu tells her girls that their grandparents died in a car accident, rather than burden them with the truth. But far from sparing them, this lie takes root in Cassandra’s mind, causing the girl to become so overwhelmed with the fear of losing her parents that she needs therapy.

Merry continues her struggle to find happiness, which she does to some small degree through Lu’s family. But the spectre of their father still hovers over them no matter how much Lu wants to believe he’s gone from their lives. Of course, Merry, bound by misplaced loyalty continues to visit him in prison, even though she never gets from him the apology and heart-felt remorse that she so desperately needs. After many years, a date is set for their father’s release. He expects to be allowed to install himself in his daughters’ lives and pick up where he left off. Finally Lu must face her father and in so doing save Merry.

In a story that spans some thirty years Meyers explores the impact violence has on not only its direct victims, but those who come after. In so many ways we are the sum of our experiences, and no matter how well we are able to make peace with our past, these experiences leave marks that no amount of time or emotional healing can erase.

Sadly, due to the prevalence of domestic violence in almost, if not every culture, this story will resonate with a great many. Violence at the hand of a loved one is far more complex than a random attack by a stranger. Meyers explores the labyrinth of emotions at length, beautifully demonstrating the paradoxes of this issue.

The way the plot swings between the sisters’ viewpoints and leap-frogs through time bothered me at first as I found it difficult to merge fully with characters and events. However, on reflection I now see that had Meyers not done this the emotional buffer this distance provides would have made reading this story unbearable. If I were to have one nit-pick with this story, however, it is that the sisters’ narrative voices are far too alike for my liking—but given the overall quality of the prose and the potency of the story, I can let this slide.

Having experienced domestic violence first hand and gone on to work with the perpetrators of such violence, there is no one better equipped than Meyers to write a story like this. I would categorise, The Murderer’s Daughters as faction—a skilful blending of fact and fiction. In Meyers’ own words:

‘ “Don’t let Daddy in the house.” That’s what my mother said to my eight-year old sister one Saturday afternoon. Then she went to take a nap. She may have warned me as well, but I was barely five at the time and can’t remember.’

As adults, Meyers and her sister discussed this event which started a series of, ‘What if?’s streaming through the author’s mind. But for a single choice, The Murderer’s Daughters could have quite easily been Meyers’ autobiography. Now there’s a chilling thought.

About the reviewer: Jenny Mounfield is the author of a three published novels for children, her most recent being, The Ice-cream Man (Ford Street Publishing www.fordstreetpublishing.com) as well as a number of short stories for both children and adults published in print and online. She has reviewed children’s fiction for e-zine, Buzz Words since 2006 and has recently completed her first novel for adults. She lives in south-east Queensland Australia with her husband and three teenage children.