Review: What Remains of Me by A.L Gaylin

Overall Rating: ★★★          Difficulty Rating: ★

"As we wade warily into the penultimate decade of the twentieth century, hers is the Smile for Our Times - a baring of teeth, as chilling and inevitable as a mushroom cloud. You can look away from her - and look away you will - but those dead eyes will follow you. You will never forget."

   Gaylin's suspenseful masterpiece, 'What Remains of Me', will have you questioning your every understanding of the plot. Once you think you've cracked the puzzle, you'll shortly find yourself at a dead end again. With Gaylin's incorporation of mixed narrative and whipping you to and from different decades, you will find that there is not a dull moment in this story of deception.

   In 1980, 17-year-old Kelly Lund is arrested for the murder of Oscar-nominated Hollywood director, John McFadden, and quickly rises to fame as a media sensation. Her chilling smile is branded the 'Mona Lisa Death Smile' and becomes the epitome of nightmares.

   Robbed of her youth, she is released from prison twenty years later only to find herself under scrutiny yet again after her father-in-law, Sterling Marshall, is found dead. 

   Structurally, this book is well crafted in terms of the methods used to progress the plot. Gaylin takes advantage of different formats such as news articles and novel excerpts in place of chapters. This effectively maintains interest by repeatedly pulling the reader out of the flow of the narrative and introducing a variety of forms. Reading the breaking news as the characters were reading it certainly put me in the moment and I felt like I was a part of the story.

   Another admirable structural point is the way Gaylin interweaves the telling of the parallel plot: what is happening presently (2010) and the flashbacks to 1980. She makes the chapters flow into each other so nicely through the use of revelations that link to the past. My favourite example of where Gaylin does this is when she ends a chapter with Kelly discovering a necklace that was lost many years ago. The ensuing chapter then takes the reader back to the morning after the necklace disappeared so its relevance can be comprehended.

   There is a great deal of dramatic suspense in this novel as the narrator is unreliable in terms of disclosing the full details of past occurrences. However, the narrative is cleverly constructed in this way because you don't know what you don't know! Gaylin is constantly deceiving in the way she presents her characters; almost none of them turn out how they seem. I could not put the book down - there was a surprise around every corner!

   'What Remains of Me' depicts a beautiful message about judgement and that is reflected in the character development shown throughout the book. My favourite quote conveys this through use of triple emphasis:

"Your one word responses become evidence of cold-bloodedness. Your shabby clothes become a sign of disrespect. Your facial tic becomes The Mona Lisa Death Smile."

Here, Kelly tells of how she falls victim to sensationalism in the media and how people are quick to pass judgement on her character as a result of a few choice words in one article. It goes to show how great of an impact prejudice can have. 

   It came as a shock to me that I successfully predicted who did what by the time I got two-thirds of the way through the novel. Although I did have my suspicions, I admit it was still quite a wild guess and not because the plot was predictable. Of course, if I prophesied my findings any earlier then this would be more subject to criticism. Nobody likes a foreseeable thriller. 

    I came across this novel when I embarked on a book hunt set up by fellow university students, who remain anonymous. They regularly hide books around the campus for students to find and read, which I think is such a wonderful thing considering that they do it for free and they are not affiliated with the university itself. So to them: thank you so much for this amazing read and keep doing what you are doing; it is truly inspirational. 


  1. Dude if you like this book you'll love the Millenium series, aka The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, especially the 2nd and 3rd books!!! It has a lot of different POV chapters, and quite a bit of unreliable narration.. I guess?! The narrator hides things. And its murder mystery OFC. Hmmm maybe u have read it already ��
    This is karima btw �� your reviews are excellent book recs

    1. I haven't read those books yet but I'll definitely make a mental note to check them out! I love a good murder mystery. It's great when a writer can really make an unreliable narrator work because I feel that those can be very tricky!