Burntown: A Novel by Jennifer McMahon


One day, I promise you, those papers and the machine shown on them will change not only your life, but quite possibly the entire world.


In the underbelly of Ashford, Vermont lives Eva and her mother Lily, scrabbling out an existence, homeless street people that once lived with Eva’s brother Errol and father Miles. Eva’s father has possession of a mysterious machine, built with stolen plans of Thomas Edison’s, a strange inheritance passed down in their family.  Miles grew up to be a professor, he relied on this machine to seek justice for the murder of his beloved mother. This mysterious machine allows people to converse with the dead, on an ill fated night it speaks, warning the family of danger. The river floods, and all Eva remembers is waking up by the river, her father and brother dead. In order to survive, mother and daughter must disappear, so Eva becomes Necco. Having shunned a normal life, the two exist as outsiders. But who or what are they hiding from? Lily isn’t right in the head, surely it’s the horrible death of her husband and son that induced  these wild imaginings and unfounded fears for her daughter. Then Necco’s mother dies, and her boyfriend is murdered making her appear to be the suspect, she realizes her mother wasn’t mad after-all. A man named “Snake Eyes” is on the hunt for Necco, and it all ties in to her family’s strange past and the machine. Necco’s memories aren’t clear, and only in returning to the beginning can she discover why she is being hunted. She encounters high school student Theo, but trouble of a different sort haunts her. She owes money to a drug dealer, and Necco finds herself entangled in her trouble, with little faith that she can be trusted.  Pru, the cafeteria lady at the school is a strange outsider herself with a special circus and a need to dull her own pain with pills. Theo is just the answer to what ails her. When the three come together, it is their only chance to outsmart evil and they form a strange sisterhood.

On the riverside there are a group of women that use ‘the devil’s snuff’, fire-eating visionaries that allow only chosen ones to join their group. They come into play throughout the story, often making the reader wonder if Necco’s mother was messed up from being involved in the devil’s snuff. I wanted to see the women have more meaning in the story. They felt a little thrown in. Early on we reach back into the past as Eva (Necco’s) father witnesses his mother being murdered by a man in a chicken mask, it’s horrific, this is our meeting with Snake Eyes. The machine, the mysterious Edison machine… I was hoping there could be more communication with souls, considering this cursed thing causes so much death and suffering in one family through time. But it’s not as much a character as it could have been.

Pru is a strange woman, and I wanted her character to flesh out more. There is so much story there. This is a strange cast to be sure, and I spent some time feeling a little dizzy wondering where we were all going with this. Lily’s death felt so abrupt. Errol… well I can’t talk about that without giving things away. A lot of what Necco knows about her early life is Swiss cheese. So many lies, but with a purpose. Her confusion after the tragedy serves her mother well in keeping them safe, until evil catches up with them. It comes together in the end, I think some readers may get confused on the journey, and the novel gave off a strange feeling of disorientation which makes sense. Necco’s life is one big dizzy spell, poor thing.

I am torn, there are elements that worked, it feels like being lost in a fog. I loved The Winter People and enjoyed The Night Sister but this has me conflicted. It is bizarre but maybe with too much going on. I think McMahon conjures interesting stories, and her characters aren’t the usual run of the mill characters we get elsewhere. It’s still true here, but I wanted more focus on the machine, the communications with it. I feel I was left by the river half dead myself, still trying to figure things out- so I guess that’s the closest I’ve come to becoming a character in a long time. Certainly unique and strange. I look forward to her next novel.

Publication Date: April 25, 2017

Doubleday Books








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