We were all in over our heads, you said. Everything was too much, our lives were too much. Too many temptations, allurements, false starts, false promises. Too much pain. Too much grief. And there was nothing to be said about this: some griefs, you said, outstripped all consolation.
As for the explannations, we would never be satisfied.
Daniel Abend is a successful psychoanalyst and single parent to a teenage girl. Life is wonderful, until it isn’t. His work with patient, Jessica Burke, was successful and returned her to her life and family, her future potential back on track with college. Then it falls apart when she dies. While sitting in the pews, waiting for Rector Nelson Spurlock to give the eulogy, Daniel thinks about the patients he has lost and struggles with the stunning shock that it seemed impossible that of them all, Jessica could be dead. When it is Daniel who is dead, his daughter seeks Spurlock out to inform him all missives from her father now belong to her. But the clergyman is rattled, with no idea who she is talking about, who Daniel is. So begins the story. The ‘confessional’ arrives after Daniel’s death and in it a mystery, the reader and Spurlock dissect everything that happened together. This is Daniel’s last confession, and he asks in his letter “will you hear it”?
Daniel passes his days in a sort of haze until his daughter, Clementine brings to his attention a strange envelope with a key inside. Led to a post office box, he discovers a poem assigned in a night class Jessica was taking. Now, with the poem sent before her death he knows it was no accident, her death was very much intended. It is a heavy weight to bear, this knowing. Then, through a photograph that horrifies with its mystery, the claws will pull him down. Spurlock is drawn into the story, though beyond giving a eulogy for the deceased Jessica, he never knew either she nor Daniel, but Abend was so moved by his words that he clung to them. Who is Abend? Does anyone truly know?
The picture serves to terrorize Daniel, like a threat to his own daughter, to all daughters of the world. Clementine knows so little about her own mother, just another lie he contains, until he can’t. His life seems to be a series of women begging, remember me… “with the past so much longer than the future.” Each woman gone and now Clementine too, or maybe missing, which? The slippery truth found its way to his daughter, and all because of his protective lies, he has nothing and deceptions even for good reason can’t be tolerated by the one betrayed. But what is the truth, just what lies has he invented?
It is fact he loved a woman named Miriam, that the way of her demise is more story, one Clementine had to tell herself, because what she believes of her mother is a safer fiction than the true horror story. Someone else knows though, the very person who could have had a hand in Jessica’s tragic end. Someone else is making sure Daniel ‘remembers’ his discarded past involving the tragedy of Miriam who is now morphing with Jessica’s strange final moments. This is a mystery, a quiet thriller but much more a beautiful literary tale. Daniel helps his patients cling to life long enough to see their way out of darkness, and yet what of his own? Is it possible to reinvent the past, change the story to a cleaner version? What of the sickness of the sinner?
When the reader reaches the rotten center, they’re not sure what to feel- maybe horrified and yet exhausted by the decisions and deceptions, much as Daniel must be. Heartsick, because nothing is worse than being abandoned by your child. Is anyone ever truly ours? What of abandoning yourself? It’s so hard to express why I felt so many conflicting emotions reading the story without ruining the mystery. All I could think is, “My God, what have you done?” Every character has meaning, even when we (like Clementine) are oblivious to their importance. That the dead are present, an ever watchful eye, that a reckoning is never quite how one imagines it to be. A tale we all take part in, because you can arrange a life, your own, someone else’s, with the precision of a God and your ‘creation/invention’ will turn on you, demand its pound of flesh. What of intentions, selfless vs selfish, does it make a difference? As if any sort of ‘arranging’ can be right, or wrong. The universe has an account of your every transgression, against others, or yourself. The dead rise, at their own will, if only through the tormented memories of those left behind to grieve.
The characters have their reasons for everything, how toxic our ‘reasoning’, how blindly we move through our lives and each others, infecting those we love most with our choices. I imagine every reader will feel different emotions, certainly it seems damnation would be fair, if you are moved to justice. Everyone is a mystery, or a tragedy about to happen. How is Spurlock, a godly man, to unravel such inhumanity? How did he find himself a key player in a story of deception and fatherly love? The writing about Daniel’s job as a ‘therapist’ is gorgeous and humbling. In chapter 29, he tells of his years in practice dealing with his patients ‘astonishing disclosures’ and how little, in the end, they ‘alter the fabric of the patients life.’ These happenings that rupture the veil of our ordered life somehow always spit us back out to where we were. Everything changes, and yet nothing. Our lack of awareness is usually suspect, because all too often on some level we did know. All of it stood out to me, because it is a strange effect when something rocks our world, it may reverberate but does it change the past? That can be applied to any big moment, good or bad, if you can even label the things in a life as such. The world and all it’s inhabitants hurtle towards the future, unchanged by our victories and miseries. Life moves on much the same.
I will be thinking about this for days. It starts off slowly, but by the novels conclusion I was gutted. There are heartbreaking moments, and brutality that is shocking. It’s hard not to hold Daniel accountable, and yet impossible not to find compassion too. Are we all so disfigured? Maybe.
Publication Date: April 3, 2018
Random House Publishing