The Scamp by Jennifer Pashley
Tin House Books, 2015; 400 pp
Reviewed by AprilJo Murphy


“You can’t escape anything in a small town. The town knows everything, and not enough. All the guys you slept with, but not which ones you loved.”

[Trigger Warning: This review mentions incest and sexual abuse]

Jennifer Pashley’s debut novel The Scamp is a beautiful exploration of life on the borderlands of society. The plot follows Rayelle, a young woman living in the shadow of the motherhood she almost had, as she and Couper Gale unravel a mysterious string of murders with a poignant connection: nearly all of the victims are young girls and victims of incest, abuse, and trauma.

Pashley structures her book by switching between chapters written from Rayelle’s perspective and her cousin, Khaki, as they struggle to achieve agency. Readers dive deep into the path for these women to rebuild themselves. While Rayelle develops a romantic attachment with Gale as they drive their camper (“The Scamp”) through the swamps and ramshackle houses of the South, it is her journey to understanding her relationship with Khaki provides a tense, emotional narrative.

The Scamp shows Pashley’s writing has adapted into the expanse of the novel.

Before the publication of her novel, Pashley explored similar themes in her short story collections The Conjurer and States. Her work tends to include the perspectives of queer characters, and she manages to capture the humanity of these people in addition to their queerness. She knows exactly which details (bruises on a shoulder, eyes that linger too long on the cheerleader carwash by the community church) evoke a rich history in her characters. Each setting is decorated in precisely the right details: the caliche in the trailer parks, the bar coasters soaked with bourbon.