Tell Me What I Am: A Novel

Image of Tell Me What I Am: A Novel
Release Date: 
August 15, 2023
Reviewed by: 

“A deep-probing, layered story undulating through the shadows of domestic violence, Tell Me What I Am is a finely wrought psychological thriller . . .”

An unsolved mystery keeps the reader turning the pages of Una Mannion’s Tell Me What I Am. It’s a cleverly paced, slow burning psychological thriller steeped in family secrets and written in two points of view from characters—one living in Vermont, the other in Pennsylvania—whose lives are connected by Deena Garvey.

In 2004, 30-year-old Deena Garvey disappeared in Philadelphia. Mother to four-year-old Ruby, she’s a neonatal nurse on medication for depression and she does her best to hide her abusive marriage from her sister, Neesa.

Neesa Garvey can’t let go of the hunt for her sister. Fourteen years after Deena’s disappearance, she won’t accept the story that her sister willingly abandoned her daughter. She suspects Deena’s volatile husband Lucas Chevalier is the man behind Deena’s disappearance and subsequent cover-up.  

Though Lucas Chevalier trades on his good looks and charm, he is prone to unpredictable bursts of anger. Now a single father raising Ruby in rural Vermont, he’s a covert maneuverer, repeatedly telling his daughter that the troubled Deena abandoned them, and he won’t further disclose information about her mother. A computer programmer, and avid outdoorsman, Lucas home schools Ruby with his peculiar, unsanctioned curriculum, which is in keeping with their solitary, rural lifestyle.   

Ruby Chevalier is friendless and isolated, until the day child services inexplicably arrives at their home and tells Lucas he’s neglected proper registration of home school regulations. State law mandates that Ruby attend the local middle school, but now that she’s in a position to socialize, Ruby’s friendships are strained because she fears people will find out about her missing mother.

When her suspicions are raised by a series of mailed envelopes with her name on them that Lucas is hiding, Ruby goes against Lucas’ rules and uses a school computer for an online search of Deena Garvey. Newspaper reports from the year 2004 suggest Deena’s disappearance is linked to domestic violence, and Ruby becomes all the more curious about her mother while growing more in fear of her father.

The taciturn Clover aids and abets her son, Lucas. She owns the house where Lucas and Ruby live and is complicit in withholding information about Deena from Ruby. Though a steady presence in the home, her relationship with Ruby is strained, due to the hold over her the controlling Lucas maintains.

Because Lucas assured she was denied court visitation rights to keep in contact with Ruby, Neesa hires a Vermont detective to keep tabs on her niece and report his findings to her in Pennsylvania. The detective’s attempts are fraught with multiple obstacles designed by Lucas. When the detective comes to the house, it is Clover who turns him away per Lucas’ instructions.

Tell Me What I Am is suspensefully paced throughout its 14-year time frame. In third person points of view, Mannion oscillates between Ruby and Neesa’s perspectives, keeping the tension at a simmer while revealing the salient facts in increments, building between Ruby’s coming of age and growing awareness, and Nessa’s dogged attempts from a distance at saving her niece’s life, in loyalty to her beloved sister, whose true whereabouts have become the central mission of Neesa’s life.

Mannion’s use of language is spare and unembellished, adding a seamless fit to the dark tenor of the story. In poignant, perfectly placed foreshadow suggesting the foreboding nature of the book’s mystery, Neesa, who is taking a course at Penn and working with Philadelphia artists, explains the meaning of the word palimpsest to a friend, with regard to her colleagues’ current project, “The things their work has in common is how the past persists, even though that text has been over-written by something else.”

A deep-probing, layered story undulating through the shadows of domestic violence, Tell Me What I Am is a finely wrought psychological thriller that will intrigue the discerning reader. It raises questions about the difference between well-placed and improperly placed family loyalty and will surely provide a lively topic for book club discussion.