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The first time I set out to write this review, I started to write "heart-stopping" and ended up writing "heart-starting" by accident. It works. This book is both. Maggie Nelson's Jane: A Murder really does feel like blunt force followed by spiritual revival, and renewal. Given the subject matter, it might come as a shock to hear what a sheer beauty this collection (memoir, mystery, poetry, dream) is. I read the last page, then flipped right back to the start.
Jane tells the spectral story of the life and death of Maggie Nelson's aunt Jane, who was murdered in 1969 while a first-year law student at the University of Michigan. Though officially unsolved, Jane's murder was apparently the third in a series of seven brutal rape-murders in the area between 1967 and 1969. Nelson was born a few years after Jane's death, and the narrative is suffused with the long shadow her murder cast over both the family and her psyche.
Jane explores the nature of this haunting incident via a collage of poetry, prose, dream-accounts, and documentary sources, including local and national newspapers, related "true crime" books such as The Michigan Murders and Killer Among Us, and fragments from Jane's own diaries written when she was 13 and 21. Its eight sections cover Jane's childhood and early adulthood, her murder and its investigation, the direct and diffuse effect of her death on Nelson's girlhood and sisterhood, and a trip to Michigan Nelson took with her mother (Jane's sister) to retrace the path of Jane's final hours.
Each piece in Jane has its own form, and the movement from each piece to the next--along with the white space that surrounds each fragment--serve as important fissures, disrupting the tabloid, "page-turner" quality of the story, and eventually returning the reader to deeper questions about girlhood, empathy, identification, and the essentially unknowable aspects of another's life and death. Part elegy, part memoir, detective story, part meditation on violence (and serial, sexual violence in particular), and part conversation between the living and the dead, Jane's powerful and disturbing subject matter, combined with its innovations in genre, expands the notion of what poetry can do--what kind of stories it can tell, and how it can tell them.