Jennifer Hillier’s fifth novel Jar of Hearts begins with a trial.
A serial killer stands to receive either a death sentence or life in prison for committing a gruesome crime fourteen years earlier. The victim’s remains have just been found, and in a packed courtroom witnesses prepare to take the stand for the prosecution. Hillier’s description of the mood hints of disbelief at the lack of exposure the case is receiving:
The trial has barely made a dent in the national news. Which is good, because it means less publicity, fewer reporters. But it’s also bad, because just how depraved do crimes have to be nowadays to garner national headlines?
Pretty fucking bad, it seems.
The crime is heinous, to be sure. A young girl Angela Wong was kidnapped, murdered, her body dismembered and her remains hidden. The criminal is Calvin James, who has openly confessed to murder and offers no remorse for what he did. His ex-girlfriend Georgina Shaw hasn’t seen Calvin in almost two decades, but she is the star witness in the case against him.
The reason for that is because Georgina (Geo to her friends and family) was there when Angela was murdered, and she never told anyone. Now Geo not only faces the loathing of Angela’s family, but also that of her co-workers, acquaintances and even her own fiancee, but she also faces time in prison for being an accessory in Angela’s disappearance and murder. She’s not only hated because she aided Calvin James, but also because she moved on to have a successful life and career while Angela’s remains were rotting in the ground. And she knew it all along.
Hillier’s writing is well constructed but coy, never giving us more information than is necessary to understand the essentials, mainly that Calvin James is a killer, Angela Wong the victim of a heartless crime, and Georgina Shaw, the accomplice of a murderer who betrayed her first friend and kept quiet about her death.
But it’s not that straightforward. To understand the present one must look to the past, and this is particularly true in Jar of Hearts. Hillier is masterful at keeping us in the dark, and every breadcrumb she leaves takes us towards some form of Dante’s Inferno. In flashbacks, Geo remembers her relationship with Calvin, her friendship with Angela and her aversion to cinnamon heart candies, the smell of them taking her back to a most terrible night.
A crucial part in the novel, is when after Geo steps down from the witness stand and Calvin James gives her a cryptic note that says almost nothing but as the plot moves along, it ends up being a defining key to revealing what exactly happened the night Angela died. Detective Kaiser Brody knows that Geo was less than truthful on the stand, partly because of his investigative skills but mostly because he grew up with Angela and Geo, and in his youth he very openly showed his adoration for the latter. It’s clear to Kai that Geo is lying about something more than Calvin’s note, but about what he can’t be sure.
Hillier’s use of multiple narrators, specifically Geo and Kai, adds a level of complexity to a story already filled to the brim with imperfect characters. It’s certainly difficult to sympathize with Geo, who doesn’t seem to wither and crush during her time in prison, which is surely what we believe she deserves.
Not even her fiancée breaking up with her shortly after her imprisonment is enough to placate our belief that she doesn’t deserve much worse than what she’s getting. Brody is not the embodiment of the silver star policeman either, carrying on an affair with a married colleague and his empathy towards Geo seemingly misplaced.
Jar of Hearts is in keeping with Hillier’s previous novels like Creep and Wonderland, where the truth is not what it initially seems. As much as Geo’s actions are despicable, we soon learn that there are worse things to be discovered and as Geo herself has learned, “buried things can and do come back.”
A thing to admire about Hillier’s characters is their stubborn resilience. Georgina is a survivor and learns to navigate the intricacies of the prison system until the time of her release, and even afterwards she is adamant not to be a victim of neither the wrath of her neighbors nor Calvin James himself.
Hillier brings Jar of Hearts to a smoldering and unexpected finish that offers very little redemption but gives the opportunity of closure. Whether you agree with the outcome or not, Jar of Hearts is guaranteed to get and remain under your skin.