Like a meth-injected dream, Sharpe's Barbed Wire Heart is a compelling account of twenty-something Harley McKenna. Harley's mother, Jeanie, has been dead for three and a half weeks. Her father, Jake, storms around in "a whiskey cloud," cleaning his guns and muttering about taking revenge on his age-old enemy, Carl Springfield. The McKenna blood runs through Harley's veins, tying her forever to North County community and to a code of silence that has defined generations. Sharpe is as in love with the setting of Barbed Wire Heart as the story itself. She teases beauty from the landscape and draws poignancy out of its hard-bitten inhabitants.
Each morning, Harley walks the land with a rifle slung over her back. She knows this place, its dangers and secrets. With Duke away on a drug run in Mexico, Harley turns to a dark and dangerous path when she decides to get revenge on Springfield. The only safe harbor is The Ruby, a house for battered women running from their husbands, boyfriends, and fathers who want to get clean or sober. These are the pregnant girls with nowhere else to go. Led by Harley's best friend, Mo, The Ruby's walls know every story and every detail on every woman who has ever lived. Harley's aim is to protect The Ruby, although she's fully aware of the consequences.
Thus, begins the journey of a girl who must carry a man's burden. When a local woman goes missing and is later found assaulted, Harley sets on a path of vengeance, buoyed by Duke and his training. Buck, Duke's loyal colleague, pretty much hates Harley; he's beginning to feel emboldened by Duke's absence to Mexico. Harley feels increasingly uneasy: "if I wasn't around Buck truly be Duke's second in command in charge of everything in his absence." Her plan has always involved baiting the Springfield boys, the men who live on the edge.
The reek of char and chemicals cling to Harley's skin. She, like the McKennas and Springfields, starts preparing for the coming war. Harley knows what will happen if Carl McKenna stands in Duke's way. She steadfastly tracks her prey though a succession of encounters with characters who rival Flannery O'Connor's creations in grotesquery--especially Carl, the cliched bogeyman with his slicked-back hair, oily stains on his Wranglers, and the burn scars he got in the explosion that killed Jeanie and beloved Desi: Will's mother, Harley's best friend from childhood.
Harley discovers the trailer in the woods and the nefarious goings-on in the house on Shasta Street. Beyond a group of Aryan brothers who like to cook meth "shake and bake style" while persuading with fists and firearms, the blame for the County's epidemic of drugs and violence rests on Carl Springfield. With Buck out of the way and Harley "slipping free of all of it," her plan hinges on hitting each target and destroying Carl's empire before Duke's death forces her hand. There is love here, but it's sad and fragile, a love tied up in Haley's childhood connection to Will, the two bound by more than just love and blood and circumstance.
If Barbed Wire Heart wavers, it's in the old challenge of walking the razor's edge between genres. Crime fiction fans may yearn for a more complex, clue-filled plot, while lovers of literary fiction could find themselves discomfited by scenes involving axes and knives and characters awash in chemical annihilation. Sharpe has us smelling the blood and the pain. The violence seems intertwined with Harley's DNA, grafted into the spine and pages--from Duke's momentous old grudges to his primitive predisposition to protect his own daughter. The awful, twisted truth is that Harley loves Duke, a man who rules with viciousness: "I've hated him I've worshipped him and I've resented him." In her youth, Duke has put Harley in cages and car trunks: "he's taught her good things, useful things and terrible things." There's a certain truth as Sharpe unfolds a "barbed-wire" landscape of violence and swift justice directly tied to Haley's aching heart.
While the poverty and brutality of North County's meth culture is told with chilling authenticity, the novel's real power comes from Harley's inner strength as she fights with the men around her. She powers through with various incantations, all the while shepherding the spirit of brutal Duke and the need to protect Will, as well as the urge to deal with Carl and his two sons. Harley ends up doing what is right, keeping true to The Ruby's code of honor, even as she faces dire consequences for her actions.