There are several ways to pen a story concerning young girls and criminal acts. One method: treat it lightly, à la Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries, playing the crime as an old-fashioned puzzler. Another technique: follow K.D. Miller’s example in Brown Dwarf and examine the more serious ramifications of such events. In her debut novel, Miller eschews a “sepia-tinted past that smells of lavender and old books,” and instead focuses on the ways in which youthful decisions result in untold damage.
Miller employs two intertwining timelines. The first takes place in the 1960s and features Brenda Bray, a young girl saddled with weight problems and a manic-depressive mother. Brenda is the Brown Dwarf, an “astronomical wannabe … [floating] through space, lifeless and dull.” She falls in with Jori, a disturbingly self-possessed girl who latches onto Brenda with enthusiastic glee. Jori has decided that the duo will find and apprehend the notorious Clarence Frayn, a fugitive serial killer with whom Jori is infatuated.
The second narrative strand is set in the present. Brenda, who now goes by the name Rae Brand, is a successful writer of historical mysteries. Rae has never actively confronted her girlhood actions, and the interplay of childhood bewilderment and mature repentance lends Brown Dwarf much of its exceptional edginess.
Possibly basing her tale on the real-life exploits of novelist Anne Perry (fictionalized in Peter Jackson’s film Heavenly Creatures), Miller superbly captures the abject cruelty and loneliness of adolescence. Brenda’s alternating excitement and misery is rendered with haunting precision, sometimes recalling the youthful feverishness of Stephen King’s novella “The Body.”
But, perhaps due to its brief length, there is a hollowness at the core of Brown Dwarf. The conclusion feels rushed and incomplete; it may be a validation of Miller’s talent that the reader wishes she had gone on longer. Leaving one wanting more is not always a bad thing, and Miller provides enough tension and insight to compensate for the book’s slightness.