A review by leahsbooks
In the Garden of Spite by Camilla Bruce

dark mysterious tense fast-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Plot
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? No
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes


Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this book. I am providing my honest opinion voluntarily.

As someone who has had an interest in psychology for most of my life, I've always wondered about whether people who commit monstrous acts are born that way, created by circumstance, or a combination of both. And this book really speaks to that debate.

While the story IS based on a real person, aspects of it are creatively embellished (as detailed in the author's note). Belle Gunness starts life out as Brynhild Størset. We meet her as a teenager who works as a maid on a farm. She is pregnant by the son of the family who owns the farm, and fully expects that he's going to marry her. Her sense of entitlement leads her to try to force his hand, with disastrous results. When a brutal attack ends her hopes and her pregnancy, something kindles in her and she begins to let spite rule her life.

There are some major warning signs in Brynhild even before this event seems to flip a switch - she' grows up in an abusive household, and was molested at least once in childhood. Because her family was poor, she was discouraged from speaking up about the molestation, and had very little power over any of her circumstances. In addition, This attack triggered something in Brynhild and turned her from an angry and powerless young woman into what would eventually become a brutal and prolific serial killer.

When her sister helps her come to America, she reinvents herself as Bella, but can't quite leave certain parts of herself behind. I loved the dual points of view. While I initially empathized with Brynhild/Bella, as the book went on, I found it more and more difficult to like her as a character. She was such a vile character, and continually blamed, denied, and lied to others, even to herself. The other point of view was her sister, Nellie. It's always been extremely intriguing to me to see the differences between people who grow up in the same situation but turn out so differently. Nellie was kind, sweet, and empathetic, and while she had some inkling of what Bella was doing, as her older sister, she also had an ingrained response to protect Bella no matter what.

Even as I was horrified, I couldn't stop reading. It's graphic and brutal, and definitely not for the faint of heart. But it's an interesting take on a story that still doesn't have any clear answers - what really happened to Bella Gunness?

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