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What Happened That Night


What Happened That Night

Sandra Block is already famous for her Zoe Goldman series. Her new book, WHAT HAPPENED THAT NIGHT, is a dark and disturbing psychological thriller that takes an unflinching look at the issues of campus rape, drugs and alcohol. The plot echoes the cases of Brock Turner, the Stanford rapist, and Bill Cosby, which have dominated the national headlines for months now.

This is the emotional story of Dahlia (in the flower world, Dahlia symbolizes staying graceful under pressure, especially in challenging situations), who was once an ambitious law student at Harvard. One night, at a finals party, she is brutally raped. She does not recall the details of the attack, but the trauma alters her mind and body, leading her to drop out of school.

Five years later, Dahlia is working as a paralegal in Boston and has made a valiant effort to get on with her life. She is doing some traditional stuff, like therapy and going to survivor groups, “where all the cookies are stale.” But she also is doing some nontraditional stuff, like carrying a Beretta, getting tattooed with the word “survivor” among other symbols, and dying her hair purple.

"...a socially relevant page-turner and an emotional rollercoaster ride.... This is a frightening yet important book because it forces us to confront the issues of women’s rights, gender identity, homosexuality and being an outsider in many ways."

Despite her PTSD and scary stress-related seizures, Dahlia has a small apartment, a cat named Simone, and her best friend Eli, who, like her, has tried to kill himself. The description of the seizures is heart-wrenching: “It sucks me in. It is a freak of nature. An undertow, a vortex, a tornado, all in one. I can’t fight it. The pull is too strong and my limbs bend to it.”

Dahlia is somewhat stable with her steady job and night classes to finish her degree when an ugly video of the rape surfaces online. She walks in on her colleagues watching the eight-minute grainy and shadowy footage. They are both horrified and sympathetic. When Dahlia sees it for the first time, she remembers the nightmarish, wild night of drugs, alcohol and gang rape. It all comes back to her, and once she sees the faces of the rapists, she wants revenge. She has had some disturbing dreams about the party, which she had attended with her best friend and roommate at the time, Daisy, but the details were scattered.

Dahlia teams up with James, an Asian IT genius who is also haunted by his own personal tragedy, to identify and punish the rapists. In the unmasking of the bad guys, who now lead successful lives, she is forced to confront a shocking betrayal. Dahlia and James are linked by loss and heartbreak, but the quest for justice keeps them distracted from their pain, and we hear the story from their voices with the flashbacks of the rape forming the third narrative.

The savagery and violence of the images are unsettling as they come back to Dahlia in a “jagged puzzle”: “The smell of a stale carpet. Brush burns all over my face. My cheek red and swollen, the tip of my nose bleeding.” And the aftermath: “Crackers in my hair. Bruises everywhere…. My underwear is missing. My white shirt is stained with beer. Dried semen and blood on my thighs. (It will hurt to sit for days. It will hurt to urinate, like pissing through razors.) Holes in my sweater. Holes in my memory. Holes. I have been raped.”

There is sadness, resignation and white-hot rage when Dahlia watches the video with James. The description is matter-of-fact and detached: “And lying on a mattress is a girl being raped, repeatedly. She is twisted in odd ways, like a rag doll. She is spun over several times…. The girl is silent at times, moaning at others. Sometimes she cries. And I can’t get my head around the idea that the girl is me.”

WHAT HAPPENED THAT NIGHT is a socially relevant page-turner and an emotional rollercoaster ride. There is justice, closure and vigilante revenge, and Dahlia comes dangerously close to crossing the line. This is a frightening yet important book because it forces us to confront the issues of women’s rights, gender identity, homosexuality and being an outsider in many ways.

Reviewed by Sonia Chopra on June 15, 2018

What Happened That Night
by Sandra Block