Nov 14, 2018
SHELF AWARENESS reporter Elyse Dinh-McCrillis
Readers who like unreliable narrators are in luck with Annie Ward's deliciously unsettling Beautiful Bad, which contains not one, but two unreliable narrators to keep everyone on edge until the very last page. And the third lead character can't be trusted, either.
The psychological thriller opens 12 weeks before the main event, with wife and mother Maddie, her face badly damaged from a recent incident, planning to see a therapist without her husband's knowledge.
Cut to the next chapter, titled "Day of the Killing," which unfolds like a scene in a spine-tingling suspense movie--character tiptoeing down the stairs into a dark basement; something horrifying is ahead but you can't look away. The chapter starts with a call to 911. When the dispatcher answers, a child is shrieking while a woman whispers for him to go upstairs. And then the woman screams for help and the line goes dead.
An officer races to the address where the call originated, hears yapping dogs in the backyard, peeks through the front door--and sees "a red mess in the middle of the room." The officer knows she's supposed to wait for backup before entering, but her priority is the child inside who's possibly in danger. She enters the house alone, "to see what unspeakable thing has happened here."
Back to Maddie, now 10 weeks earlier, giving her therapist a long list of her fears: whenever her young son, Charlie, cries; when her husband, Ian, drinks or doesn't wake up; ISIS; drowning; "the darkness in some people"; and finally "[t]hat something is wrong with me."
Maddie is currently residing in Kansas with her family. But back in 2001, she lived in Sofia, Bulgaria, teaching English to students and writing travel books. Maddie often visited her best friend Jo, who worked with refugees in nearby Macedonia. That's where Maddie and Jo met Ian, a bodyguard for the British ambassador. Ian was always texting his girlfriend back home, but from the start, chemistry sizzled between him and Maddie. Maybe with Jo, too?
Throughout the years, as the conflict in the Balkans intensifies, Maddie, Jo and Ian navigate the ups and downs of their relationships, the pressure of their jobs and devastating personal losses, trying to hang on to their sanity and humanity amid horror. All three eventually leave Eastern Europe, bringing home ghosts that won't stop haunting them.
After the early chapter with the officer at the house that portends nothing but dread, Ward takes her time unfolding the histories of her three lead characters, starting at the beginning of their friendships and bringing them up to the day of the killing. Against the vivid backdrop of the Balkans--readers can almost feel the heat and taste the dust--Maddie and Jo get high on danger. The more the Macedonian border guards warn Maddie to stay away, the more she keeps coming back. But she wasn't born intrepid. Ward reveals a harrowing incident in Maddie's childhood that made her defiant toward death, though perhaps the experience damaged Maddie more than she realizes.
Her friendship with Jo becomes strained at one point, each woman feeling betrayed. The reason for Jo's behavior is eventually explained--and it's a shattering one. Jo and Maddie are prickly and mercurial and sometimes make questionable choices, but they're always believable as they deal with the obstacles in their lives.
Ian's behavior after being in war zones is no joyride, either. He's desperate to move on, to build a picture-perfect domestic life with Maddie in her Kansas hometown. He buys them a house and takes up painting miniature models. But Maddie knows there's a darkness and unspeakable depth to his pain: "With trembling hands and squinting eyes, he gathered up the tiny parts of those dismembered soldiers and carefully glued them together... and painted them with bright colors to bring them to life. And then splattered them with blood."
This scene unnervingly captures the complicated nature of post-traumatic stress disorder. Ian is big and unpredictable; when triggered, he can transform from loving to menacing on a dime. Ward is careful, and skillfully so, to portray him as someone in need of sympathy and care. Maddie's heart breaks for him, but at the same time she's scared of her own husband. Her feelings expertly illustrate the beautiful and the bad in their relationship.
It's this combination of crime and psychological study that makes Beautiful Bad so memorable. It asks questions there are no easy answers for, and depicts a chilling scenario for when trauma goes untreated. Sometimes love isn't enough, and sometimes too much of it can lead to tragedy.
Interview with Annie Ward
Beautiful Bad started out as a memoir. How different was that from the final version?
The original manuscript was called The British Body Guard and it was an honest account of how I met my husband, the many war zones he had seen throughout his life and the extremely rocky path we traveled trying to become a real couple. My agent found the book troubling in its original form. I had no idea that a frank description of how difficult it is to love someone with PTSD would be so controversial.
What was your first reaction when your then-agent suggested you fictionalize it?
When he told me the book was very raw and that maybe it would be more palatable if it were not "real," I decided to take a break from the project and hopefully develop a different perspective. I stopped writing and focused on being a stay-at-home mom to two toddlers while my husband traveled for work. Strangely enough, it worked, and a few years later I felt ready to take another crack at it.
Maddie likes living on the edge of danger. How was your experience there?
I can't hold back here. I LOVED EVERY HORRIBLE, DIRTY, CRAZY, SCARY, HEART-POUNDING MINUTE! And I'm not alone. If you could gather 20 people in a room who lived in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1998, you would find successful filmmakers, New York Times bestsellers, world-renowned journalists and a bunch of intelligent criminals. They would all hug each other and yell nazdrave ("cheers") while they toasted to that era in that part of the world. I don't know anyone who lived there then who doesn't miss the endless nights where you could eat, drink and dance and barely a spend a penny.
What do you think people would find most surprising about that region during that time?
There were famous actors from Hollywood everywhere. Nu Image, an Israeli-American film production company, was making tons of low-budget movies in Sofia, starring the likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Ron Perlman, Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi. I was the local screenwriter they used when they didn't want to pay to fly someone over from Los Angeles, and because I spoke Bulgarian, I was asked to take the Americans out to dinner and to clubs. It was crazy. Bulgarian mafia thugs at nightclubs do not always mix well with American stars.
My most popular story from back then is the time I got a bloody nose after being punched in the face for daring to introduce my girlfriend to Jean-Claude Van Damme while he was sitting with a very jealous companion.
What made you stay five years?
The reason I stayed five years? Honestly? It was cheap, it was exciting and Americans were given rock-star treatment because we could pay the bill. I'd spent my first 18 years in Kansas. Sure, I'd lived in Los Angeles for six years, but I was never the person allowed to cut the line at the club or buy a round for the whole bar. I was able to be that person for a brief amount of time. It went to my head. I'm ashamed, but it's true. We felt special and it was addictive.
Did you think you'd write about your experience there someday, outside of travel books?
Everyone who lived there knew they were going to write about their experiences. Lindsay Moran wrote the bestseller Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy. She is a character in my book, and I'm a character in hers. My friend Danielle Trussoni was in Sofia as well, and she wrote about Bulgaria in her Angelology series as well as in her poignant memoir, The Fortress. I write about what I find fascinating, and I could not have had better material.
One of the characters in your book struggles with PTSD. What kind of research did you do to write those scenes realistically?
Oh, boy. Towards the end of Beautiful Bad, Ian and Maddie get in an argument and he says something to the effect of, "What? You don't think I know about your little PTSD library?" That was me. I had my own library on the subject.
When I married my husband, I did it knowing what he had been through in Iraq, Bosnia and Rwanda. A couple of nights ago my husband said to me, "The equation that worked was patience plus time." That was how he got better. I was patient and we gave it time. He will always have PTSD, as will I. The boating accident in the book is real and I have been struggling with that memory every day of my life.
My empathy for his trauma and his for mine has brought us closer, and probably enabled us to put up with things most people would find untenable. So, to answer the question, I did do research on PTSD, but it was just to get the right words and terms. I knew what it was and how it felt on my own.
Film rights have been bought and you have an MFA in screenwriting. How involved will you be with the adaptation?
My plan is to have absolutely nothing to do with the film adaptation. Nothing. I want to stay as far away as possible. I would really trust Sue Kroll, Warner Brothers producer, with my life. I wish the best to the person who writes the screenplay and I promise to stay out of their hair. I've got other fish to fry.
Which elements would you hope to see included?
My guess is that a film adaptation will have to pull back from the political and historical elements in the book to focus on the crime scene. As a screenwriter, I completely understand why that would be necessary. My hope is that the adaptation doesn't abandon the past altogether. The thriller genre is formulaic, and formulas exist for a reason. They are satisfying. I don't mind if the book is crafted differently for film. That's inevitable.