Publisher: HQ (Trade Paperback – 1 December 2021)
Series: Standalone/Book One
Length: 480 pages
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Talented Australian author Sarah Barrie presents one of the darkest and best Australian thriller novels of 2021 with Unforgiven, a powerful and captivating read that sets determined protagonists against the very worst of human monsters.
Years ago, the city of Sydney was haunted by a terrible paedophile and murderer known as the Spider, who kidnapped, molested and killed young girls, all on camera. His reign of terror was ended suddenly one violent night thanks to two women, a determined rookie police officer, Rachael Langley, and one of the Spider’s young victims, Lexi Winter, who disappeared never to be seen again.
Now, after years of living on the street, Lexi has grown up tough and hard, determined to escape the tortures of her childhood through alcohol while trying to reconnect with the sister she was forced to leave behind. However, Lexi is still obsessed with taking down monsters, and with her impressive hacking skills she spends her days tracking paedophiles, entrapping them, and ensuring they are captured by the police. However, when her latest target proves to be particularly illusive online, she makes a fateful decision to break into his house, only to witness him being murdered.
At the same time, Rachael Langley is now a successful detective inspector, solving some of the toughest crimes in Sydney. Still lauded for her role in stopping the Spider, Rachael lives in regret for being unable to save Lexi all those years before. However, everything changes when a man calls her, claiming to be the real Spider and providing proof by horrifically murdering another child on camera. Quickly establishing a police taskforce, Rachael and her team must determine if the killer is a copycat or whether Rachael captured the wrong man all those years ago. To solve this case Rachael is going to need help from the last person who wants to see her, Lexi, but can these women work together after everything they have been through? And what happens when their killer learns that Lexi is still alive and hunting for him?
This was an intense, grim and deeply compelling Australian crime fiction read from Barrie, who has written an amazing and powerful story that proves very hard to put down. Unforgiven was the first of Barrie’s books that I have read, although several of her other Australian crime fiction novels are quite intriguing and I might try and read them at some point after being so captivated by this epic and moving read. This was such an addictive novel that it gets a full five-star rating from me.
Barrie has come up with a very impressive and intense narrative for Unforgiven that sees several damaged characters dragged into the web of a dangerous and clever criminal. The story has a great start that showcases the lives of the main protagonists, Lexi, Rachael and Rachael’s nephew and fellow police officer Finn, as well as giving some hints at the events of the original Spider case that so deeply impacted the female main characters. After this quick set-up, the story advances in all its dark and powerful glory, as two fascinating plot lines develop. Lexi, who has become an online vigilante hunting paedophiles on the dark web, finds herself caught up in a brutal murder when one of her targets is murdered by a mysterious figure while she is sneaking into his house. Most of her early story involves her continued attempt to hunt paedophiles while also trying to find a way to hide the body of the murdered man, for which she gains some help from an interesting source. At the same time, Rachael and Finn become involved in a brutal case when the man claiming to be the real Spider calls Rachael and leads them to murdered young girl, forcing them to once again dive into the unsettling world of paedophiles.
Both storylines advance at a quick and compelling pace, with each of the main protagonists facing massive challenges as they attempt to achieve their objectives. I liked this initial separation of the storyline, and the two plotlines work well together in tandem, with the reader getting pretty caught up in both narrative threads. At the same time, the author drip-feeds in bits and pieces of Lexi and Rachael’s pasts, especially the events that led up to the arrest of the Spider and the disappearance of Lexi. This deepens the audiences’ connections to the two protagonists so that when their storylines inevitably connect it really enhances the impact of the scene. Unforgiven shifts into high gear once these plotlines are joined, with all three protagonists working towards the same goals, although Lexi maintains her secrets. Barrie starts throwing in some real curveballs here, providing a complex and intriguing case that throws the protagonists through the emotional wringer as they get closer to the big and powerful conclusion of the novel. There are some great twists in the last half of the book and while I saw a couple of things coming, there were some fantastic surprises that really threw me. This ends up being an outstanding and complex story, and the readers will be left wanting more, especially as Barrie leaves it open for a sequel, which I really hope she does.
While I deeply enjoyed the captivating and intense story contained within Unforgiven, this was a bit of a hard novel to read at times due to its very, very dark content. Unforgiven focuses on the hunt for a murderous paedophile and his child exploiting friends, which inevitably leads to some depictions of the terrible acts they commit, not only to children in the current storyline, but to the protagonist Lexi back in her childhood. Barrie really does not pull any punches here, and the book contains some very dark and grim moments that really stick in the mind. These powerful and shocking scenes really raised the stakes of the book and ensured that the reader becomes extremely invested in seeing the protagonists achieve justice through their actions. While I really appreciated that Barrie was trying to raise awareness and showcase just how evil some people can be, I will admit that some of these scenes did get to be a bit much at times, forcing me to stop and put the book down. Readers are warned that Unforgiven has very strong themes of violence and abuse against children and young people. However, if you can get past that, it is worth it, as Barrie does an excellent job telling this rough story about true human evil.
Unforgiven’s already brilliant and powerful narrative is enhanced by the impressively written and complex central characters contained within. Barrie has gone out of her way to introduce several very damaged and compelling protagonists, each of whom add so much to the overall plot thanks to their excellent backstories and substantial development. The most prominent and interesting of these characters are the two female leads of the book, Lexi Winter and Detective Inspector Rachael Langley, whose lives became irreparably entangled all those years ago. These two characters serve as two of the three main point-of-view characters, with most of the story told from their perspectives.
Lexi was a great character, and I was deeply impressed with the amount of work that Barrie put into her complex and damaging past, as well as her distinctive current personality. There were so many interesting aspects to Lexi, who immediately stands out as a protagonist thanks to her damaged personality, strong sense of deduction and observation, her badass ability with a computer and the fact that she is the only character whose chapters are told in the first person. I loved the intriguing contradictions in her life as Lexi makes a living as an escort while devoting most of her personal life to being an online vigilante/hacker extraordinaire who specialises in taking paedophiles down. This makes for such a distinctive character, especially once you figure in all the major impacts of her childhood that has left her such an emotional mess. Barrie does a good job of slowly revealing all the horrors of her early life, and while some of the scenes are pretty brutal, it is amazing to see everything that the character has risen above to still be such a strong figure. The reader swiftly gets attached to Lexi as a protagonist and it will be fascinating to see what happens to her next if Barrie decides to turn this into a series.
The other central character that I must talk about is Rachael, the veteran detective inspector whose career was built off the success of the Spider case. Rachael is a great police protagonist, a confident, intelligent and strong figure who is able to keep most of her people in line and pursue a vigorous investigation. However, Barrie builds in several great aspects to her character that really impact this protagonist throughout the course of Unforgiven. Firstly, there is the guilt that Rachael still feels over her past with Lexi, especially as Rachael failed her in a way which is slowly revealed over the course of the book, especially once the two reunite and have an awkward relationship. The other aspect is the doubt that slowly creeps into Rachael as the case proceeds, especially as the possibility that the original person convicted in the Spider case might be innocent. This doubt, coupled with the guilt over the fact that she could be responsible for the latest deaths by not actually catching the real Spider, starts to impact her throughout the book and proves to be an intriguing motivator for some of her decisions. These complex aspects really helped enhance the emotional power of Unforgiven and I really appreciated the intense storyline that Barrie wrote about people living in the past and accepting one’s mistakes. I really enjoyed seeing both Lexi and Rachael in this novel, and they had some great storylines in this book.
Aside from Lexi and Rachael, there are several other great characters in Unforgiven I should mention. The most prominent of these must be Detective Senior Sergeant Finn Carson, Rachael’s nephew and second-in-command of the investigation, who ends up being the third major point-of-view character. Finn was an excellent male police character who serves as an interesting counterpoint to the two female protagonists. While not as damaged as the other two, Finn has his own issues, and his viewpoint really added to the overall quality of the book. I was also a big fan of Lexi’s neighbour Dawny, an eccentric older woman who assists Lexi in several matters, including disposing of a body (what are good neighbours for?). Dawny was one of the funniest characters in the book and it was great to see the protagonists be completely baffled by her knowledge and ability to come up with effective solutions to problems while maintaining the batty old lady routine. I quite liked the eventual reveal of who Dawny really was, as it fit in well with the other characters in the book, and it will be fun to see if Barrie brings her back at some point in the future. Finally, I definitely need to highlight the villain of the book, the Spider, who is one of the most despicable fictional antagonists I have seen: a sordid child abuser and murderer who films their grisly crimes. You quickly feel a lot of hate towards this character, even if you don’t know who they are for most of the story. The eventual reveal and the various twists around them were quite clever and I had an amazing, if disturbing, time finding out who this monster was. An overall exceptional character driven novel, you will quickly find yourself getting stuck following all these fascinating and compelling figures.
Unforgiven by Sarah Barrie is an outstanding and impressive read that takes the reader of a gritty and vicious ride. Filled with a disturbing narrative and some brilliantly damaged central characters, Unforgiven is an utterly captivating read that is near impossible to put down or forget about. Easily one of the best Australian thrillers of 2021, Unforgiven comes highly recommended and I am extremely excited to see what other incredible novels Barrie comes up with in the future.