Ann moves to Idaho and takes a job teaching music at a small school. She eventually marries Wade whose family (ex-wife Jenny and daughters June and May) experienced unimaginable violence and loss. When they marry, Wade is already showing signs of early-onset dementia which has plagued the men in his family for several generations. Ann tries to provide stability for her husband as she also tries to understand the why of the tragedy.
The narrative is non-linear. The story moves from past to present and back again. Since the novel examines the fragility of memory, this fragmented structure is appropriate since memories move back and forth through time. The point of view also shifts as the reader is given the perspective of several characters, including Ann, Wade, Jenny, Jenny’s friend Elizabeth, May, and even a hound dog. At the end of the novel, however, there is no total clarity; this too is realistic because life does not provide pat answers. Not everything can be understood.
Ann tries to piece together what caused the family tragedy. She has only newspaper records and Wade’s sporadic recollections. He rarely speaks of what happened and she doesn’t push him because “Sometimes the memory, like a sudden blade itself, is so sharp and present he believes it happened yesterday.” Ann speculates that Wade has forgotten his loss though the sadness remains: “It’s the texture of his memories, not the feeling, that is gone.”
Though an act of violence reverberates throughout the novel, the novel is very slow paced. At times it is too slow. I also found myself wondering what the point of certain sections was. For example, what is the purpose of the perspective of a bloodhound? What is the point of so much detail about Elizabeth’s friendship with Sylvia, Jenny’s precursor? Is it really necessary to learn about the adult life of one of Ann’s students? Perhaps my analytical skills need some honing.
I’m certain readers will comment on the lyrical quality of the diction. Unfortunately, I found myself growing bored with the effusive, dreamy quality to the language. Here’s a lengthy passage from the dog’s perspective: “He bores this tunnel through the thicket of smells, the bear a week ago, musk trapped in the mats of his fur broken open by the trunk he rubbed against, the pine whose bark a day ago was peeled off by sour teeth smelling of digested grass and fear and even stone, thrown fragments of foam from being startled, rabbits, too; he smells the newborn rabbits underground, where the afterbirth has dried in the eroded dirty fur, some just born, some old enough to have returned wounded, the blood already licked up off the pine needles by coyote tongues rancid and smelling of starvation, or other dogs, not on a hunt, but with hay in their fur and the insides of houses, digging halfheartedly with their pungent snouts in piles of scat sweetened and bittered by post-frost elderberries the bears eat to sizzle and slime the tapeworms out of their intestines.” It feels sometimes as if there is more style than substance.
On the plus side, there is the characterization. The main characters are complex and realistic. All have flaws. Except for one major exception, the motivations of the characters are clear and understandable. The characters are also dynamic; they change in a credible way. Personal growth is most clearly shown in Ann and Jenny.
Though I sometimes felt this book was beyond my complete understanding, it has its strengths. It will definitely appeal to people who prefer character-driven novels and who enjoy lyrical language.
Note: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.