This has been my “bedtime book” for a few weeks now, but choosing to read a chapter or two before I go to bed, in my apartment in the middle of Toronto, probably wasn’t the best idea for a good night’s rest. The Devil You Know by Elisabeth de Mariaffi is a thriller that follows 22 year old reporter, Evie, in 1993, when the case of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka was just starting to crack open. I missed this time completely (I was eating cheerios in a high chair at that point), but that doesn’t mean the effects of this dark period in Ontario’s history didn’t have a ripple effect through my young mother and into my sister and I as we were raised.
Details of the Scarborough Rapist/Bernardo case makes a disturbing and poignant backdrop for Evie’s story. De Mariaffi drops facts from the time to bolster her riveting plot. Evie works as reporter, writing and researching missing girls, which becomes a trigger for her since she experienced a similar situation first hand when her childhood best friend was kidnapped and later found murdered. The excellent tension is derived from Evie’s past trauma, the current atmosphere, and whether Evie’s growing suspicions are a symptom her imagination or real danger. De Mariaffi’s storytelling is sharp and compelling. As genre fiction, it’s takes a left turn from her previous Giller-nominated short story collection, but The Devil You Know offers just as much entertainment.
Firstly, I should say that this title is amazing. While I was reading it (and toting it around town) I’d get comments from men of all ages that usually went like, “Well hey ho! Maybe I should get me a copy of that! snicker, snicker” And I would always smile and say, “yeah you should” while thinking you’d have no idea what you’re getting yourself into. So for those men and whoever else is swayed by a curious title, How To Get Along With Women is not, in fact, a manual about women socialization. Instead, it is the debut collection of stories from Elisabeth de Mariaffi.
I’ve said this before, but when you start a short story, it’s often up for grabs where in the world you’ll end up…in what character’s mind frame, or in the middle of whose twisted ideas. Short stories have the ability to begin and end wherever they please rather than a novel who is more prescribed to a notable beginning and ending. Mariaffi’s stories are really wonderful for that. They like to play around with narrative, as though you’re standing in line and the person behind you starts telling you their life story. It’s like you’re inserted into the life of someone and they take off, bringing in thoughts and histories from a different time to flavour the tale with context. In De Mariaffi’s collection, the protagonists are often female (hence the title) and focus on relationships between these women + others, whether it’s their children, lovers, fathers, friends or men as a species. More often than not, when I finished a story, I would forget that these people were made up based on how much I seemed to know about them. Characters explain moments of weaknesses, of regret, or they explore the points in their lives that made a significant impact. Mariaffi is extremely thorough in her scrutiny and chooses her anecdotes wisely so that they allow their subjects to bloom.
Field Work, Kiss Me Like I’m the Last Man On Earth and Ajaccio Belonged to the Genoese were among my favourites in the collection. Tampering with themes of love, religion, and sexuality, Mariaffi’s writing is biting and captivating. I enjoyed her writing because it explored experiences in a way that I haven’t read before. What may pass as a simple anecdote is actually wonderfully layered as she builds stories about a world of different kinds of people. Cliches are non-existent here and where they could have been, they are replaced by a curious kind of insight that nudges it’s way under your skin and settles there.