[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]
I wasn’t exactly sure what this novel would be like—true crime stories are usually more on the grim, graphic side, and as for “Lolita” (for which Sally Horner’s story was partly an inspiration), I admit I liked it more for its value as a classic than for its theme. Still, “Rust & Stardust” looked like it’d be an interesting read, and that it was… as well as heart-breaking in many ways. (Especially when you already know how things went for the real Sally Horner.)
One thing I really appreciated with it is how it never veers into graphic/descriptive territory when it comes to the sexual abuse Sally suffered. I’m not a prude, but reading about women being defiled in terms that make the whole thing look like “stuff being done to a piece of meat” has never been something I particularly relish, and when the victims are kids, how to put it… That’d just be the worst. So I was really glad that, while there’s no doubt as to what LaSalle does to Sally, there’s also no need to say more. We get it. We get the picture. He’s a disgusting man. And we can leave it at that.
There’s also a really frustrating side to the story, in that it shows us several close calls where, had things gone just slightly differently, Sally could’ve been found much sooner. It always hinges on a tiny thing, on just the wrong timing—frustrating, but also all too human, because it puts the reader face to face with something that most of us may indeed not recognise in time to act. It’s all about “someone has to do something”, but the someones who could act are sometimes oblivious, and sometimes make their decision just that tad bit too late to be useful. And, to be fair, most of the characters were so naive! Granted, it was 1948, and we can assume there weren't so many horror stories of kids being abducted at the time, and people wouldn't be as savvy and wary as they generally (well, supposedly) are now. Still, I felt like slapping them sometimes and tall them "duh, this is so obvious!"
(I say “frustrating”, but with a dash of anticipation, like when you’re left with a cliffhanger.)
The novel doesn’t entirely follow Sally’s ordeal either, and the author took some freedoms with the side characters: people whom Sally meets, who may or may not be in positions to help her, and who provide a ray of sunshine in her existence while LaSalle drags her around. What it was exactly like for the real Sally, we’ll never know, but here, it felt as if these encounters allowed her to survive, to remain strong enough in spite of all the grim sides. There’s an (expected) turning point when she reaches that stage where she starts to look more like a young woman, something that doesn’t “appeal” to Frank, and in turn, he gradually treats her differently—and you can’t help but shiver, on top of the previous shivers due to the whole paedophilia part itself, because it’s when you also start wondering “how long until he discards her because she’s not a little girl anymore?”
I guess I had more trouble, all in all, with the overall style. The writing was OK but not the best ever, and there were moments in the story when the rhythm felt strange; or perhaps that was because everything focused on the characters and little on the investigation itself, so there wasn’t the same kind of suspense I usually associate with “crime stories”?
Nevertheless, I “enjoyed” the book, also for telling this story that deserved telling. 3.5 to 4 stars here.