Violence, to paraphrase the late Justice John Paul Stevens, "has established a uniquely pervasive presence in the lives of all Americans."

Stevens wrote those words 45 years ago in reference to broadcast media, in a ruling on the need to protect listeners from George Carlin's "indecent" comedy, but the characterization feels equally germane to today's insidious scourge of violence. Many Americans are so inured to its commonplace manifestations — mass shootings, police brutality — that they tune them out like the drone of an airport television, while perversely sustaining a culture saturated in true crime.

I'd always assumed that true crime was primarily an American pastime, but "Penance," the sophomore novel from Britain's Eliza Clark, demonstrates that our obsession has crossed the pond. The novel centers on the gruesome murder of a teenage girl by three peers but is more fascinated by the killers themselves, exploring their home and school lives, their town's legacy of violence and their nation's roiling politics leading up to Brexit, which is ratified the day of the murder.

Joni Wilson is just 16 when her classmates Angelica, Violet and Dolly torture her, set her on fire, and leave her to burn in a beach house in Crow-on-Sea, on the east coast of England. Angelica, whose father is a prominent pro-Brexit politician, is the popular girl everyone secretly hates. Violet, the most reluctant of the trio, was Joni's best friend growing up. And Dolly, the ringleader, is a "glamorous, charismatic troublemaker" who writes fanfic about the perpetrators of a U.S. school shooting.

While "Penance" references real-world horrors including Columbine, Dolly is a "creeker," consumed with an in-universe attack in Montana called the Cherry Creek massacre. (I'd wager that fictional name derives from Cherry Creek School District — where I attended school, directly east of Columbine.) The girls have petty jealousies and mutable cliques like any adolescents, but they also have pasts replete with damage, including sexual abuse, bullying, drugs and family dysfunction. And they are all extremely online. "Penance" delves into toxic internet culture, as characters harass via anonymous Tumblr posts, lurk on message boards celebrating serial killers and install gaming mods to permit extreme behavior.

"Penance" is packaged as a true crime potboiler, written by disgraced tabloid journalist Alec Carelli. While he aspires to the heights of Capote, his first-person account, incorporating interviews, podcast transcripts, social media posts and (purported) correspondence with two of the killers, reads more like a mass-market paperback discounted for the supermarket shelves. By writing in the guise of a hack, which Clark does convincingly, readers miss the polished craft of her debut, "Boy Parts," which landed her on Granta's 2023 Best of Young British Novelists list.

Her talent is still abundant here, but fully realizing Carelli and the teen's voices often necessitates — intentionally, it should be said — repetitive, unliterary prose. However, the compromise is worth it for Clark's trenchant observations, particularly in the novel's imaginative coda.

Call the stylistic shortcomings penance for the uniquely pervasive violence that America insistently permits, all in the (misguided) guise of freedom.

Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer whose next review will be of Monica Ojeda's "Nefando."


By: Eliza Clark.

Publisher: Harper, 336 pages, $30.