(Editor’s Note: Our columnist reviews Makkai’s book in detail this month, rather than her usual interview format)
I Have Some Questions for You echoes with loss.
Rebecca Makkai’s I Have Some Questions for You starts with the return of Bodie Kane, film professor and podcaster, to Granby, the New Hampshire boarding school of her youth, to teach a short course in podcasting to high schoolers.
This is supposed to be a triumphant return. Bodie is no longer an awkward teenage Goth relying on the charity of the Mormon family that paid her tuition. Still, she bumps up against her memories of her time as an outsider watching the popular kids party and go on ski trips.
As a teen, her defense was to gather information on her peers, a skill she has carried into her adult life. As Bodie explains:
. . . I collected information about my peers and the way some people hoard newspapers. I hoped this would help me become more like them, less like myself—less poor, less clueless, less provincial, less vulnerable.
Each summer I would bring the yearbook home and mark each student’s with a special code of colored checkmarks: whether I knew them, considered them a friend, had a crush. . . .
. . . I cared about details. Not because they were something I could control, but because they were something I could own.
And there was so little that was mine.
When one of Bodie’s students decides to explore the murder of Thalia Keith, Bodie’s popular former roommate, Bodie begins to reexamine the circumstances around Thalia’s death at the same time she is dealing with the public canceling of her estranged husband and coming to terms with her own past.
Bodie seeks to reconcile what she thought she knew about the murder with memories that emerge as she treads the familiar ground of campus. She begins to see that the case against the accused killer Omar Evans, the school’s athletic trainer, was flimsy and driven by racism.
Makkai does a great job building the world of Granby from describing the hidden gathering spots used by teenagers to depicting the social insularity of the people who reside on the grounds. Part of this mastery may lie in the fact that she has lived for 21 years on the campus of the same boarding school where she was a day student and where her husband now works. She worked the same world-building magic in The Hundred-Year House, a novel set in a former artist’s colony that has echoes of the famed Yadoo writers’ retreat.
Bodie and her students’ quest for answers leads to a reexamination of Thalia’s case and a reunion between Bodie and some of her classmates from 1995 that yields unexpected results. Large portions of the story are addressed to an absent teacher, who Bodie believes Thalia was romantically involved with during their years at the school. Was he the murderer or just another male teacher who felt comfortable inappropriately touching female students?
Like all great books, I Have Some Questions for You tells its own story while shedding light on larger issues relevant to the times we live in. In addition to being a literary page-turner, the novel also serves a lament for the legions of murdered and disappeared women and the indignities they have suffered. Sections like the following work as a Greek chorus of sorts, offering a complement to Bodie’s story as they reinforced the universality of the crimes at the heart of the story:
That was her flip-flop beside the van.
That was her comb in the ravine.
That was her bank card at the ATM in Kansas, but that wasn’t her on the security footage.
Some leave more than others, to be sure: some leave trails and videos and yearbook quotes; some leave barely a trace.
That was her handwriting in the logbook.
That was her phone, tossed off the overpass.
That was her blood in the bathroom.
That was her hair in the attic.
We’re lucky to find this much.
That was her laundry, still in the dryer.
This was her body, but she’s long gone.
Rebecca Makkai is the author of the novels I Have Some Questions for You, The Great Believers, The Hundred-Year House, and The Borrower, and the story collection Music for Wartime. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, The Great Believers received an American Library Association Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, among other honors, and was named one of the Ten Best Books of 2018 by The New York Times.