Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Midwinter 2013. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.
“Maybe I am in hell and just don’t know it.”
Mary-Magdalene Feigenbaum lives in a funeral home with her young mother, Roxie, and her elderly step-father, Harry. She has a couple friends at school, but Lester won’t stop asking her out, and Abigail is on the verge of leaving her behind to become one of the in-crowd. Everyone in their small town knows that Maggie’s mother slept around in high school, and that her biological father, Lonnie, is in jail for beating his mother to death. So it comes as no surprise that Maggie is a bit odd, and is even in therapy for night terrors. Maggie continues to go to therapy because she is more than a little in love with her therapist, Dr. Scott, but she will never tell him her secret: there is a voice in her head, a voice that tells her to kill people, and punishes her when she disobeys. Maggie does her best to cover her tracks, but murder doesn’t keep, and soon her life is on the verge of collapse under the weight of guilt, lies, and ill-kept secrets.
You Know What You Have To Do is an unusual and slightly uneasy mix of teen drama and psychological horror, as Maggie’s ordinary teenage problems are complicated by her second life as a serial killer. Ultimately, the thriller aspect of the story takes a backseat, so that the story is more of a dark coming-of-age tale for a peculiar teen. There is no detective hot on her trail, although there are certainly a few errant witnesses to her impulsive acts of violence. As hinted by her full name, Mary-Magdalene’s story arc is more about the possibility of repentance than the fulfilment of justice.
Maggie is a difficult and somewhat unpleasant companion who judges everyone harshly, while simultaneously trying to justify her own murderous actions. Thanks to the book’s first person narration, we are subjected to her constant barrage of sarcasm, petty judgement, and self-righteous sexual morality. She is made only slightly more sympathetic by the fact that her victims are often violent and abusive themselves, making the story slightly reminiscent of Dexter. However, her victims are very flat characters, who do little more than hand Maggie her excuse to kill them.
Although Maggie is in therapy, and eventually a mental hospital, the book skirts around the issue of mental illness. Even after having a major breakdown, Maggie refuses to discuss the voice with her doctors, so that it remains unclear whether Maggie is a tired caricature of mental illness, or merely has an unusual coping mechanism for dissociating herself from her darker thoughts. However, both portrayals are problematic and left me somewhat uncomfortable with the ambiguous conclusion of this novel.