The synopsis: Tabitha Deacon is a pretty undergrad living in Italy on exchange. She falls in with a fast crowd and winds up dead; her comely roommate stands accused of her murder. Sound familiar? Katie Crouch’s Abroad (Knopf Canada, $23) is inspired by the death of British student Meredith Kercher and the Amanda Knox trials. Told from the dead girl’s perspective, the tragedy becomes a rich character study in the vein of the thriller writer Patricia Highsmith, Tabitha’s favourite author. Read on for an excerpt from this thrilling new novel, available on bookshelves now. —Flannery Dean
Intrigued? Read the excerpt below and if you’re hungering for more follow @FLAREfashion on Twitter and tweet #Abroad at us to grab your very own copy of the book! (The book will be awarded to the first to tweet.)
The past runs deep in Grifonia, even in a topographical sense. Below the streets, a great network of black tunnels. Often I would wander into a stone opening that would evolve into a dark passageway leading to some other unfamiliar part of town. Though I knew it was silly, I had a notion of the Grifonian hill as a thin shell, bored into by former generations until it was fragile as a used beehive. In the beginning, I often woke covered in sweat from a recurring nightmare in which the whole place crumbled, throwing all of us down into one great, lethal heap.
My early days were laced with terrible loneliness and longings for home. Still, the fact that I belonged to the prestigious Enteria program—an elite, costly program for Europeans only—always rather cheered me. I said the strange word as often as I could. Enteria. Just uttering the term brought nods of recognition from Italians and looks of respect from the other foreigners. Those letters of recommendation from my father’s heavy-hitter medical friends must have bolstered my application; I guessed some calls had been made. I didn’t care how it had happened. The fact was, I was here, my place exchanged with some Italian who was now going to Nottingham. Often I wondered whom it was now wandering through that cold British web, shadowing the life I’d vacated for the year.
Our initial orientation was held on a Monday, in the last week of August. Over five hundred students from all over Europe gathered in the auditorium on the campus, talking to each other in eight or nine different languages, voices swelling in a sickening wave. Having gone through two years at a big uni, I was used to the bedlam of large, crowded rooms, knew to coolly look at no one, to sit near the front in order to hear, but not so close that I would be actually noticed. Still, I almost fainted with relief when I saw Jenny Cole, a girl I knew a bit. We’d been on the same hall during our first year. She’d even called me over the summer to “connect” before the trip, though we had never actually gotten together; I spent my summer working to save money, and whenever I could get away, she always had social engagements. Yet now, here she was.
Jenny smiled and flittered her fingers at me. Is there anything better in a strange place than someone saving you a seat? To be lost, and then found, even if the girl beside you barely even knows you at all? She stood and made a show of kissing my cheeks Italian-style, then removed the huge red bag she had placed on the chair beside her and patted it, indicating that I should sit. She was a large-shouldered girl with thick, covetable, wheat-colored hair and skin the color of freshly poured milk. Legs a bit muscular, maybe, wide-ish hips, large breasts, often slyly exposed from expensive blouses and dresses that wrapped. She wasn’t heavy, exactly, but was the sort of healthy-looking person you could imagine gracefully surviving any sort of hardship or plague. It was the Jennies who’d rule the world come the apocalypse, whereas girls like me—the thin, meek reeds with quietly lovely manners—we’d all be swept away without so much as a parting word.
At university, Jenny had only spoken to me twice. I remembered each instance, because when Jennifer Cole spoke to you, it was an occasion. She leaned in slightly, as if she had the most fascinating bit of confidence in the world. Her voice was low and throaty, and if she really wanted to engage you, she spoke softly enough so that you, too, had to lean forward, in order to get that much closer to that hair, that remarkable figure. Back at Nottingham, she had asked if I knew a certain boy she was interested in meeting (I didn’t) and if my roommate and I would consider switching rooms with her, as she was forever getting in trouble with the hall proctor for late-night noise. (I’d been willing; Babs hadn’t.) In fact, I was surprised that someone like Jenny Cole had called me at all. But she had, and I was glad of it.
“Tabitha, thank God you’re here,” she said. “My other mates from uni didn’t make it here this morning.”
“You look very well,” I said as we sat.
She allowed a small, disappointed smile and looked around the room. I tried again.
“Oh, this is nice,” I said, giving her purse a respectful pat.
“Yes. Victoria Beckham does make a nice bag.”
“A real one?” I moved my hand away. My sister had once pointed out the same sort in a magazine. It had cost upwards of five thousand pounds.
“Yes.” Jenny gave me a frosty look.
I tried to hide my embarrassment by fumbling in my own cheap, fake leather satchel. She looked at me for a moment more, then relented.
“It was a gift from Martin. My boyfriend back home. He’s forty-nine and practically divorced, or so he says. I met him at a house party, you know, one of those weekend things.”
I did my best to maintain a neutral expression. There was a reason I didn’t know Jenny well: she ran with the Poshes, a group I’d observed only from afar. Though Nottingham was supposed to be the new utopia of student equality, the class system was alive and well on our campus, with girls like Jenny circulating imperiously at the top, waving to the underlings as they buzzed about in the passenger seats of properly worn Aston Martins and posted photos of themselves at hunts and polo matches and dinners at large country manors. Though she had lived on my hall freshman year, she was away so much I had rarely seen her. The Poshes rarely stayed on campus during the weekend. For them, a better, smarter world was always waiting just a jaunt away.
I pretended to write in my notebook while trying to think of something clever to say. It was important that she like me. That much I knew. All around us students shouted and gossiped feverishly, as if they’d known each other for years. There was a buzz in the room of being in a place where others wanted to be. The people sitting to my right—a boy and a girl with multiple nose rings—were jabbering in some mystifying, Scandinavian language. I continued to scribble nonsensical notes, as if absorbed in important business.
Just then the head of the program, an impeccably dressed woman in her fifties, stepped up to give a welcome speech in blessedly slow Italian. If we didn’t understand everything at first, she said, not to worry. Our Italian would improve in the course of time there, and we could always take extra language classes. Thousands of students had gone successfully through this program, she assured us. And if we were to get into trouble for any reason, there would be great support, be it on an academic or personal level.
At first we listened politely, but as she went on the students began to get restless. There was no air conditioning, and it was even hotter inside the room than out in the merciless August sun. After covering class schedules, the Director paused, as if not exactly sure how to approach the next topic on her agenda.
“You are here to experience our great country of Italy,” she began almost regretfully. “The art, the music, the food, the people.”
“Could this be more boring?” Jenny said—not even bothering to whisper—and taking out her phone. “I mean, I can’t understand a word, can you?”
“I’m actually pretty good at Italian,” I said eagerly. “Want me to translate?”
The Directora took off her glasses now and lay them on the podium. “So I must advise prudence. Grifonia, you see, is a lively city. A city of music. Of festivals and¾”
“Sex!” someone shouted, at which the entire auditorium rippled with an appreciative laugh.
“Some say so, yes,” the Directora answered, and then paused for another moment. The Italians, I was beginning to note, were extremely adept at the dramatic pause. “But while at these… parties, keep in mind, always, who you are. Enteria is a competitive program. You are all here on scholarship, remember. You are guests of this university, and guests of Grifonia. Do not forget it.”
I couldn’t help nodding. We all knew what she was talking about. Enteria might have had an impeccable reputation throughout Europe, but everyone knew the Grifonia program was notorious for wild nights. It was something my cousin Ben had teased me about at my going away dinner, in that brief period of time when the gathering actually focused on me.
(“Why Grifonia?” he’d asked. “Everyone knows it’s just one big fuck fest. Why not Rome? Or Florence? I’m not even sure I want to visit you there.”
“Oh, you’ll visit,” Fiona said archly. “Didn’t you just say it was a fuck fest?”)
Now, in that stifling auditorium, I studiously took notes: Reputation. Emergency number, 327 368 4122. Travel in pairs. No phone out on street.
Suddenly I felt a pressure on my shoulder. Jenny was leaning over and peering at my notebook. She laughed out loud.
“My God! Taz Deacon, I had no idea that you were such a fucking nerd!”
“Travel in pairs? Bollocks. This is your year in Italy. Good Lord. I’m just glad we ran into each other. You need me.”
The talking around us was rising now, but the director wiped her forehead and pressed helplessly on. Jenny reached out and grabbed my pen.
Italian lesson #1: she scrawled.
FUCK THE RULES
“Right?” she said.
“Exactly,” I replied softly.
Jenny smiled and gave back my notebook. Then, done with me for the moment, she turned away to chat with the other, momentarily more interesting girls.
Excerpted from Abroad by Katie Crouch. Copyright © 2014 Katie Crouch. Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, a Penguin Random House Company. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.