In the long nights and snow of a backwater American town, Christmas is a grim affair. Rosewood has a strip club, a population of deranged foxes, a proliferation of exotic mushrooms, and a children’s beauty pageant. It is, in other words, an ideal place for a murder. And, more importantly, for a novel.

The Museum of Atheism charts twenty-four hours surrounding the death of six-year-old pageant champion Ava Wilde. Look (says the context, says the blurb): isn’t this JonBenet Ramsey, mysteriously and dreadfully slain child beauty queen, dead in her home on Christmas morning 1996?

Nothing, thankfully, is that straightforward. This is no retelling or fictionalisation. No one will mistake this for non-fiction.

The novel opens with a standard murder-mystery prologue: here is a body; however did it get so dead? And at first everything is orderly, with a precise structure pinning each brief chapter to an hour, gradually revealing this town and its denizens: sinister Daniel, repairing and conversing with his harem of sex dolls; raging Leo, a friend of Ava’s parents, ensconced in their spare room, to nobody’s comfort; Ava’s brother, Jonny, fascinated by dismemberment; and Ava’s parents, overflowing with alcohol and secrets. Almost everyone is a suspect. This is a murder mystery.

But other elements undermine this. What are these foxes? Are they menace or sport? Common vermin, or something more mutant or mythic? And those fungi that creep across the town and through the book’s chapter openings; what is their role?

These oddities generate an enticing atmosphere of strangeness. The foxes are linked to fairy-tale elements: bloodied dresses, animal costumes, bundles of bones, forbidden places. The fungus, the decay – this leads to hallucination and dream.

We are far from JonBenet now. As a reader you are investigating not just a murder, but also a setting and a language, for this rich peculiarity flows into the prose. The novel plays games with perspective, slipping between minds and muddling boundaries to avoid clarity. It strips out speech marks and upends punctuation, leaving conversations and thoughts unsignposted. A gimmick at first, this becomes a tool of ambiguity when the text lunges from character to narrator, flipping between them with little separation. It is frequently unclear whether you are reading someone’s thoughts, or an ostensibly objective piece of narrative. There are mysteries even within sentences.

This jumbling of patterns extends beyond prose convention and narrative structure; the crime genre introduced in the early pages is exploited but also exploded. After carefully controlled release of information and gradually developed clues of the earlier sections, the last quarter erupts in unexpected directions. It’s partly a thrilling, extended act of revelation, and partly a frustration. Exciting as it is, this final act feels too sudden and incomplete, and the hourly chapters give it insufficient space. It does not do what you expect, but it might not do what you want, either.

Like the prose, this ending is ingenious but frustrating. Questions, so many questions. And one more for the reader: does this sound maddening? If it does, go elsewhere. But if it doesn’t, well, this is something to be devoured, bones and mould and all.
Alec Johnson

Comments are closed.