“The bedtime story my dad used to tell me began with my grandmother’s body.”
So begins Rebecca Podos’ debut novel, The Mystery of Hollow Places, an intimate and heartbreaking look at family and mental illness.
Though plotted and structured like a hardboiled detective thriller, the book opens with a whimsical, sad anecdote about the meeting of protagonist Imogene’s parents, before thrusting us into the mystery of her missing father. This back and forth between theme-heavy ornate passages and propulsive prose, this dance between literary and genre, is where The Mystery of Hollow Places shines the most. Podos manages to keep us turning the pages, while simultaneously enticing us to stop and admire the scenery. It’s a delicate balance, and this first-time novelist achieves it masterfully.
Our main character is Imogene, the daughter of medical mystery novelist Joshua Zhi Scott and a mother who left when Imogene was only two. Fifteen years later, her father goes missing in the middle of the night, and Imogene believes he is looking for her mother. Using skills learned from reading her father’s novels, she goes looking for her mother, in hopes she will find her father too.
Though short, at just under three hundred pages, The Mystery of Hollow Places is a heavy book. Its major themes are loneliness, broken families, and mental illness. And that’s without even bringing into play the usual YA tropes that are present here. Awkward teen crushes. The struggle to fit in. Body image issues. There’s a lot going on, but by employing a genre approach to story structure, the narrative never drags. Essentially what Podos has done is given us the ever-moving narrative found in the likes of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, but stripped away the fantasy elements and delivered something raw and achingly real.
Imogene’s curiosity and her growing obsession with solving the mystery of her father’s whereabouts, of what really happened to her mother, becomes the reader’s obsession. There is a black moment toward the end, where she abandons her friends and decides to go it alone that hurts the way it’s supposed to hurt. The scene where she finally meets her mother brought me to tears.
The mystery structure matters to this story. Each discovery is deliberately placed, drawing us forward in the narrative, just as we start to get lost in Imogene’s head, just as we notice how beautiful the writing is. We have no choice but to go to the end, because Imogene’s quest is our quest. She insists over and over that her father isn’t missing, but searching. This parallels her journey, as she goes missing while searching, and it parallels the reader’s journey as we disappear into the book, searching by Imogene’s side.
Though the novel is heavy and chock-full of moments that ache, it isn’t without hope. For Imogene. For her family. For anyone who struggles with mental illness. The Mystery of Hollow Places is worth a read for teens and broken adults alike.
Lucas Mangum is an author living in Austin, TX. He enjoys wrestling, cats, wrestling with cats, and drinking craft beer while crafting weird tales. His debut novel, FLESH AND FIRE, is out now as part of Journalstone’s Double Down series with a new novel by New York Times Bestseller Jonathan Maberry and Rachael Lavin. Visit him atlucasmangum.com or follow him on Twitter @LMangumFiction and talk to him about books, pro-wrestling and horror movies.