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The Night She Fell
by Eileen Merriman

A taut thriller about brittle med students in Dunedin, their drugs and disguises.

By March 6, 2024April 9th, 2024No Comments

Dead bodies are essential to thrillers – and to medical school. ‘I’ve been to an autopsy,’ says medical student Xander, one of the characters in Eileen Merriman’s The Night She Fell . ‘They do the head last, take the brain out and weigh it.’

The Night She Fell is set in and around Otago University’s medical school. Best known for her YA novels, Merriman is skilled at evoking younger characters’ voices and perspectives—this time a group of 20-year-old students—and writing pacy narratives. The novel opens just after picture-perfect Ashleigh Marlow has fallen from a balcony to her death. The novel’s central mystery is the question splashed across the headlines: ‘Suicide, accident or murder?’

Merriman is one of New Zealand’s most prolific contemporary authors. Her first novel was published in 2017: this is her fourteenth, following last year’s YA bestseller Catch a Falling Star. She’s also a consultant haematologist at North Shore Hospital in Auckland, so it’s unsurprising that medical settings – and the issues of drug access and addiction – are common in her novels.

The Night She Fell has two chronologies: ‘Before’ chapters edge towards the night Ashleigh falls; ‘After’ chapters veer further into the future, revealing the aftermath of the tragedy. Following Ashleigh’s death, the novel jumps back in time, with the second and third-year students moving into their grimy Dunedin flats at the beginning of the university year. Ashleigh moves in with the free-spirited Nisha, naïve Skye, awkward psychology student Ronnie, and antisocial army reserve Harrison.

On their first meeting at the flat, Xander – who is Ashleigh’s boyfriend – crashes into Ronnie and knocks her over, spraining her ankle. Feeling responsible, he takes her to A&E, and a connection sparks. They exchange texts, and Xander begins driving Ronnie to university behind Ashleigh’s back. Doll-like Ronnie, with her silver-streaked black hair, has a mysterious background, and at first, reveals little. Even when Xander asks what she did with her year off last year, all Ronnie can say is, ‘Existed, I guess’.

Dunedin’s student life is here in its shabby infamy, including the ‘disintegrating couch on the lawn ‘, flatmates ‘smoking joints by the letterbox’ and parties that leave a residue of ‘spilt beer and corn chips’. Merriman’s hungover characters squabble with landlords, study for tests, listen to Lizzo and Amy Winehouse and doze in lecture halls:

My classmates, all two hundred of them, were in various states of consciousness, ranging from scrawling down everything that came out of Golding’s mouth to myoclonic sleep twitches and drooling. The three girls to my left were sucking lollipops. To my right, Yoda was having a conversation with a girl on Instagram, someone he’d met on Saturday night.

Xander comes from an unstable home life. He sees his past self as ‘an angry kid who thought he was never going to get anywhere, who couldn’t see a future, let alone see beyond his deadbeat neighbourhood.’ Ashleigh’s father is a ‘hot-shot lawyer’ and she grew up in ‘a massive house with a swimming pool’. Xander benefits from her family’s influence: he is nudged into medical school and works as a Judo instructor; his phone bills are paid, and his mother’s landlord issues are dealt with pro bono. But Xander still doesn’t fit in. He feels unworthy of Ashleigh’s family, of her wealthy private school friends, of being at medical school at all. ‘It’d taken a couple more months for me to stop stressing that someone would figure out that I wasn’t meant to be there’.

From the outside, Xander and Ashleigh seem ‘the perfect couple – made for each other, apparently.’ But from the beginning, there are signs of corrosion. Xander is growing sick of Ashleigh’s controlling nature, of her manipulative behaviour and violent outbursts, of following her around ‘like a good dog.’ He imagines ‘being able to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted.’ Even the assistance he receives from the benevolent but oblivious Marlow family weighs heavily on him. ‘Ashleigh was right. Without her, without her family, I was nothing. No, less than that.’ And then there is her abuse.

The slap wasn’t completely unexpected. The trickle of blood from my lip was.

Ashleigh’s eyes widened and narrowed, like an old-fashioned camera lens. ‘Don’t you dare talk to me like that.’ She pointed a finger at me. ‘If it wasn’t for me, you’d be nothing.’

While Xander and Ronnie grow closer, tensions simmer between the rest of the flatmates. Harrison will hardly talk to anyone, unmoved by Xander’s attempts at friendliness. ‘I saw Harrison standing at his window. He was in his camo gear, an army-green beanie tugged over his ears. I waved. He didn’t wave back.’ When her belongings – car keys, AirPods, perfume – start to go missing, Ashleigh turns on her friends, blaming Harrison, along with Nisha’s stoner boyfriend. She calls Skye ‘too dumb to be at university,’ fanning the flames of another brittle relationship.

Later, when Ashleigh begins to receive sinister messages, Xander is less than supportive, dismissing her fears as hysteria, and assuming she is somehow at fault. ‘Someone left a note on my car, a horrible vindictive letter,’ she tells him, and all he can wonder is ‘who Ashleigh had pissed off recently. The list seemed to be getting rather long.’

Thrillers by local writers are growing in number and quality, with recent releases including well-reviewed bestsellers by Michael Bennet, Rose Carlyle and Jacqueline Bublitz. The Night She Fell – vivid, pacy and very readable – earns its place among these peers. Over the course of the novel, the reader’s loyalties waiver and change as Merriman explores who the characters are behind the masks they wear for each other, disguising their flaws, secrets and vulnerabilities. This is a novel that revels in ulterior motives and deception. Ashleigh grows increasingly erratic and paranoid and it’s unclear to her – and to readers – who can be trusted. In the best tradition of thrillers, The Night She Fell keeps us guessing.

The Night She Fell

by Eileen Merriman


ISBN: 9781776950430

Published: March 2024

Format: Paperback, 304 pages

Clare Travaglia

Clare Travaglia is a fiction writer and editor based in Tāmaki Makaurau. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Auckland.