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The Vastness Of Violent Loss In 'See How Small'

Author Scott Blackwood based <em>See How Small</em> on a real incident, a multiple murder at an Austin, Texas, frozen yogurt shop in 1991.
Brian Cox
Author Scott Blackwood based See How Small on a real incident, a multiple murder at an Austin, Texas, frozen yogurt shop in 1991.

On a chilly autumn night in Austin, Texas, three teenage girls are finishing up their shift at an ice cream shop. Two men walk in, and when they leave, the store is on fire, the three girls still in there, naked, bound with their own underwear, murdered. The slayings and the arson take just minutes, but the families and friends of the girls take years to get over it — or to try to get over it; of course, they never do.

The plot of Scott Blackwood's novel See How Small will sound familiar to anyone who's spent much time in central Texas: It's inspired by the Austin yogurt shop murders, an unsolved case from 1991. Four men were arrested and two convicted in that case, although both guilty verdicts were later overturned. The strip mall where the murders occurred still stands; there's a small plaque outside with the victims' names.

It is difficult — probably impossible — to make any sense of the slayings. And it has to be tough to find art in the aftermath of crimes that still shock and haunt the city of Austin. But with See How Small, Blackwood has written a beautiful, terrifying novel about how a community deals with the sudden loss of three of its youngest members.

The novel begins with a chapter told from the point of view of the girls: Elizabeth, Zadie and Meredith. They're already gone, and they speak with one voice, a kind of Greek chorus. Their words become almost an incantation: "But then you came into the fire. Found us. In all that dark and smoke and water: a bright, bare foot. The hopeful turn of an ankle. You clothed us in light. Washed our hair. Instead of nothing, we have you."

The book alternates points of view, following people linked to the girls and their murders. There's Kate, the mother of Elizabeth and Zadie, whose "heart shapes itself around a lack. A never-will-be. It doesn't grow fonder. It doesn't grow colder. It doesn't forgive. It doesn't even seek to be filled. It only sends itself away and then returns to itself." There's Hollis Finger, present the night of the slayings, who lives in an art car. Due to a head injury he sustained while working as a medic in Iraq, he "can't find the mental thread on which to string the everyday beads of his life." He's one of the only witnesses to the fire but can't quite figure out how to describe the young man he saw at the scene.

And then there's Michael Greer, a burnout who serves as the killers' getaway driver. He constantly sees his brother, who was killed years before trying to break into a house, and he's haunted by the memories of him and of the three girls whose murders he helped cover up.

Blackwood's portraits of all these characters are surprising and compassionate. Not a single sentence in See How Small is maudlin or overwrought; he treats his subjects with respect and a brutal emotional honesty. This isn't a mystery novel or a thriller; Blackwood's focus is on the characters' attempts to rebuild and the unexpected connections that become apparent when a community is faced with an inexplicable tragedy — as Hollis muses, "the ways people were linked to one another in time and space by something just outside it, hidden from them always but intuited like the stars in the daytime."

It's not an easy book to read. Blackwood avoids needlessly graphic depictions of violence, so readers are left to imagine much of the girls' final moments — which makes it, in a way, even more harrowing. His descriptions of the emotional torture their families go through, however, are beyond heartbreaking, particularly in the few sections where the girls look at the ones they were forced to leave behind: "She watches the clothes tumble in the dryer window and thinks of tiny particles falling through an endless void and how by chance a few collide with others. How all the stars, planets, animals, and people came to exist by collisions like this and will one day fizzle out into nothing. ... She stares into the flickering light for a moment, narrows the gap. See? we say. See how small a thing it is that keeps us apart?"

Small things keep us apart, and sometimes those same small things keep us together, at least whenever that's possible. It's a kind of paradox that Blackwood explores with compassionate eyes, beautifully poetic writing and artistic fearlessness. See How Small is a brutal, necessary and near perfect novel.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.