The Resemblance by Lauren Nossett

Reviewed by Rod McLary

‘Hazing’ is a peculiarly American phenomenon intended to be a ceremony for initiating new members into a college fraternity by subjecting them to humiliating or difficult tasks.  It may be thought that hazing is a relatively new phenomenon but it dates back many hundreds of years.  Its longevity goes some way to explain why it endures in tradition-bound institutions such as colleges.  However, there is a dark side to these initiation ceremonies.  Since 2000, over 50 students have died as a result of hazing – most related to excessive alcohol consumption.

Hazing provides the background to Lauren Nossett’s debut novel The Resemblance.  Set in a college in Athens in the United States, the novel begins with what appears to be a hit-and-run accident in which a young man is killed.  Jay Kemp is a student with the college and a member of its Kappa Phi Omicron fraternity [or Kap-O as it is more popularly known]. Detectives Marlitt Kaplan and Teddy White begin an investigation and it is soon clear that the accident is not as straightforward as it first appears.  Almost immediately, they run up against the closing of ranks by other Kap-O brothers – described by Detective Kaplan as ‘a bunch of boys with swooped hair and polo shirts’ [43].

In the Prologue to the novel, Marlitt Kaplan recounts a dream: By the time I reach the window ledge, the night air has swallowed him and he’s falling, still falling, with his fingers reaching out for me [2].  The significance of the dream, the person who is falling and its relevance to the narrative are gradually revealed as the story progresses.  And what a story.

One or two witnesses tell the detectives that the driver appeared to speed up as he approached the crossing where Jay Kemp died; and others remark on the similarity in appearance between the driver and the victim.  Detective Kaplan’s instinct tells her to dig deeper into this apparent accident.  Through the investigation – which consistently runs up against obstacles including a police lieutenant’s reluctance to progress a prosecution which involves the college, the toxic culture of the fraternity, the extent to which the Kap-O brothers will go to protect themselves, and, not least, the misogyny exhibited by the brothers to their female fellow students – Marlitt and Teddy persevere in their quest for the truth.

But Teddy steps back when Marlitt’s obsession with hunting down the perpetrator and exposing the college’s hazing culture leads to her being badly burned in a fire in her apartment.  It appears that the fire started with a candle – but is that really the case?  Why does Marlitt now speak in German?  The questions continue and, as they are answered, significant past events in Marlitt’s own life are exposed.

There are two narrative strands in The Resemblance:  first, the investigation of the hit-and-run and the identification of the vehicle’s driver; and second, the gradual revealing of Marlitt’s backstory and its continuing impact on her life and the investigation.  Together, these two strands add depth and psychological tension to what would otherwise be a good – but rather straightforward – crime mystery.  Marlitt is a complex person and the reader gradually learns more about her and the root cause of her determination to identify the driver and consequently expose the fraternity’s contribution to the death of Jay Kemp.

The author is a professor of German language and literature and her academic background is evident in this novel.  An intimate knowledge of campus life and the day-to-day behaviour of students flows through the novel and adds an authenticity which can’t be faked.

Unlike many crime novels, The Resemblance does not conclude simply with the exposition of the perpetrator.  Certainly, the reader discovers who the perpetrator was and why the crime occurred but that is not the end of the story.  The author asks rhetorically: if we can change systems so ingrained in money and power; and if there’s such a thing as justice? [300].  There is much more to this novel than the crime – and this makes The Resemblance a pleasure to read.

The novel is well-crafted and intelligent story of a crime brought about – at least in part – by the bizarre practice of hazing.  It is highly recommended.

The Resemblance


by Lauren Nossett

Pan Macmillan

ISBN 978 176098 979 8

$34.99; 320pp

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