Monday 20 November 2017

Literary thriller that slips between past and present

Fiction: All Things Cease To Appear, Elizabeth Brundage, Quercus/Riverrun, hdbk, 400 pages, €22.50

Things that go bump in the night: Brundage based some of the supernatural elements on her own experiences.
Things that go bump in the night: Brundage based some of the supernatural elements on her own experiences.
All Things Cease To Appear by Elizabeth Brundage

Myles McWeeney on a beautifully constructed and stylishly written supernatural thriller.

By the late 1970s, the postcard-pretty little town of Chosen deep in rural upstate New York has seen better days. So too had the raggedy clap-board house at the end of Old Farm Road. Built in 1790, its flaking paint, crooked shutters, sagging porch and the aching emptiness of the fields around it appealed greatly to art history lecturer George Clare.

However, it, and its uncared-for interior, bearing the weight and sense of it being occupied with more than its inhabitants, deeply disturbed his beautiful young wife Catherine. But George, who has just been offered a job as a lecturer in the local college, always got his way, and they and their three-year-old daughter Franny moved in. They got the house very cheaply, but only George knew the reason why and he saw no reason why he should tell Catherine about the tragedy that had occurred there some years before, orphaning the three young Cole brothers, whose family had owned the house for generations.

Transplanted from a tiny apartment in bustling Manhattan, the Clares have considerable difficulty finding their feet in this new and very rural environment. From the start, the coldly charming George is much more successful at integrating and soon finds a mistress, but his aloof manner and the sense that there is something not quite right about his background, alienates some of his college colleagues in the community. The devoutly Catholic Catherine makes friends more slowly, but as the seasons change, she becomes close to a number of feminist women in the town and soon her burgeoning sense of self creates serious cracks in the brittle foundations of their marriage.

Then, on February 29, 1979, at half past five in the afternoon, George appears at the door of the neighbouring house. Franny, in her pyjamas, is in his arms. "Momma hurt!" she cried. As Brundage writes, the neighbour's wife June "didn't have children, but she had raised dogs all her life and saw the same dark knowing in the child's eyes that confirmed what all animals understood, that the world was full of evil and beyond comprehension."

When the police arrive at the Clares' house, they find Catherine dead in her bed, violently hacked to death by an unknown assailant. George leaves town almost immediately, returning to his wealthy parents' home with Franny. On his father's advice, George lawyers up and adamantly refuses to permit Franny, the only possible witness to what really happened, to be interviewed.

Travis Lawton, the sheriff of Chosen, has his suspicions as to whom the assailant was, but is never able to find sufficient evidence to make an arrest.

His wife, Mary - the local realtor who had sold the house to the Clares - is unable to sell the house again, and it begins to crumble back into decrepitude. The years roll by, and, when Mary Lawton finally manages to sell the place, Franny, now studying to be a surgeon, returns to town to clear the house in preparation for the closing of the sale. While there, she finds a cache of letters written by her mother but never mailed. While the tragedy of the violent ending of Catherine's short life is the main focus of this gripping story, Brundage does not short-change the reader when it comes to the other participants in the unfolding events.

Each of the supporting cast of this compelling book - particularly the three orphaned Cole boys who are always drawn back to the farm where they were raised - are vividly brought to life and the reader will follow with interest their progress. A highly regarded American author (The Doctor's Wife, A Stranger Like You, Somebody Else's Daughter), Brundage has created an utterly compelling tale that is part supernatural ghost story, part acutely observed psychological thriller and part gripping family saga.

The supernatural elements in the story are, apparently, based on the author's own experience when she and her family were living in an old house in a similar rural part of New York. Her two little daughters were constantly laughing with and having conversations with invisible entities, and she recalls having a strong sense of an invisible presence in the building.

When Brundage and her family were eventually packing up to leave, she found, in a cupboard that had remained unopened all the time they had lived there, three tiny pairs of early 1800s children's shoes that had apparently belonged to toddlers who had died in a fire in the house in the early years of that century.

This is a beautifully constructed novel that moves effortlessly from past to present and back again, drawing the reader into the complicated lives of ordinary people who are trying to make sense of, and the best of, worldly events over which they have little or no control, and in George Clare she has created a memorably wicked sociopath. Charming and personable on the surface, George never hesitates to do precisely what is required to satisfy his needs.

Brundage is also a wonderful stylist, and her singing prose, bringing to vivid life the seasons and landscape of the beautiful Hudson River Valley, will linger long in the mind, as will the deft, insightful and warm portraits of the often idiosyncratic inhabitants of the little town of Chosen. A literary thriller par excellence.

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