In Lakewood, the debut novel from Megan Giddings, Lena Johnson is just trying to hold it all together for her family. And that family recently lost its most senior member, her grandmother. That leaves Lena with her ailing mom to care for, as their mountain of debt becomes clear. So Lena decides to take the mysterious job offer she receives. And nothing is ever the same again.

In the remote town of Lakewood, Michigan, Lena’s new job at Great Lakes Shipping Company seems too good to be true. Her housing is provided, the pay is fantastic, and all she has to do is lie to her family about the nature of the job. Oh, and submit to any medical study or experiment they request.

At first Lena is thrilled. Her mom is able to get ongoing health insurance coverage and medical care. She can wipe out loads of debt. She makes a few friends. But scary things start to happen, and she knows it’s not right.

In telling Lena’s story, Giddings opens the door to a true-to-life world of medical experimentation done on Black and African American people. It’s a shameful and horrible part of our collective history, and should be told more often.

My conclusions

Giddings tells a compelling story, and Lena is likable. Caring for a parent with illness and disability is hard. On top of that, Lena and her family deal with the effects of systemic racism every day. One of the first experiments Lena does at Lakewood involves turning her brown eyes blue. And that gives Giddings her first chance to dig into the cultural and societal bias Black women experience. It’s not the last time. Giddings explores racism, classism, ableism, and sexism. All in the context of Lena’s story.

Yet, this is still a novel and has strong psychological thriller components. Lena questions what she remembers, and what is actually true. Giddings creates some truly creepy passages that you won’t want to read alone at night. And I admire the way Lena persists, even when she isn’t sure which end is up.

There are plenty of layers to this story, as it crescendoes to the climax. But, about that climax. It seemed just a little too predictable to me. And although I was rooting for Lena and her mom, I simultaneously wished Giddings had created an ending with more punch.

Still, I’m glad I picked up this book and supported a young black female author. I’ve been falling down on my diverse reads lately. I’m also thinking about a nonfiction book on my shelf about this same practice of medical experimentation on black and brown people. There’s a good chance I’ll use it as a pair with this book.

If you like thrillers with a medical and social justice component, this is a great pick.

Pair with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot for a mesmerizing, nonfiction, medical read. Or if you’re interested in bad ass young black women, try Parable of the Sower from Octavia Butler. There’s also a powerful essay in Tressie McMillan Cottom’s collection, Thick: And Other Essays, about health care disparities that Black women face.