Bad Cree by Jessica Johns

Bad Cree was one of my most anticipated 2023 releases and while I did like it, it didn’t quite live up to its premise as it ultimately reads as one of those debuts that manages to be both refreshing (in its imagery, in its lack of the usual romance subplot) and cliched (in its storyline, in its language, eg: “I exhale a breath I hadn’t noticed I’d been holding” and “[i]t takes a minute to realize the scream is coming from my own mouth”). Maybe I have read too many female-driven thriller-esque stories where the mc’s sister (occasionally best-friend, sometimes her mother) is dead and or has disappeared and in their search for answers they find themselves going to their childhood home or revisiting their past. As I was reading Bad Cree I found myself waiting for something to happen, for the storyline to flesh out the characters’ personalities, to deepen the characters’ relationships, and to elaborate the worldbuilding, but the narration remains fairly superficial, more interested in maintaining suspense and drawing out the mystery. Our main protagonist could have been made into an interesting, nuanced even, character, but she very much exists to push the story forward. There are glimpses of something more, in terms of her character and her relationship and role within her family, for instance, she believes that she is often on the outskirts of her family, a spectator to unfolding conversations and drama. Her friendship with Joli also could have added a much-needed level of warmth and intimacy to the story, but upsettingly enough soon after Mackenzie’s return to Alberta, Joli is pushed to the sidelines and seemingly forgotten (which makes our mc into a rather crappy friend) for plot reasons.
The novel follows Mackenzie, a young Cree woman who after the death of her kokum and Sabrina, her sister has been laying low in Vancouver where she works as a cashier. That is until her dreams and reality begin to coalesce. Her recurring dreams eventually reveal a pattern that leads to a night when her sisters, Sabrina and Tracey, and their cousin, were camping by the lake. Something happened, something that has Mackenzie feeling guilty and confused. Eventually, persuaded by her aunt and Joli, Mackenzie takes time off work and returns to her hometown where at first she tries her best to assuage her loved ones that all is well and that her dreams are no longer encroaching on her reality, but she soon realizes that ignoring the problem won’t make it disappear. As she confides in her family, she learns that all of them have been hiding something, and their dreams may be all pointing to that night and that something may be indeed after them.
The narrative maintains its initial suspense however I kept waiting for things to be taken up a notch, for the tension to be amped up, which doesn’t seem to happen. There are elements that could have been scary but they are executed in a rather anticlimactic way. Mackenzie’s grief and her decision not to return home after her sister’s death are certainly touched upon, but I found myself wishing for more depth, or at least, more page time spent on unpacking or elaborating these themes and on conveying Mackenzie’s inner voice. While reading it I was brought to mind Monkey Beach, which is an underrated gem, and a recent release, Erika T. Wurth’s White Horse, which also dabbles in horror.
Overall Bad Cree was by no means a ‘bad’ read but I did find it ultimately rather forgettable and unsatisfying. Don’t take my word for it, as we know, YMMV, so if you are interested in this debut I recommend you give it a try.

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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