Saturday 24 February 2018

Review: Rescue by Anita Shreve

Little, Brown, €22.99

LIFE AND DEATH: Anita Shreve

Sile McArdle

ROOKIE paramedic Peter Webster met his future wife shortly after 1am on a freezing January night at the scene of a bloody car accident.

It was hardly a romantic tableau: she reeked of booze, her moaned reply to a painful stimulus was "F**k" and her injuries included an oozing stomach gash. Webster had to cut off her jeans to get her out of the car.

The fact that Sheila Arsenault's drink-driving caused the crash, mused Webster 18 long years later, ought to have told him everything he needed to know -- if only he'd been paying attention.

But of course Webster wasn't paying attention. He was just 21, living at home with his homespun parents, growing the tender shoots of his emergency-medic career and paying almost daily visits to the purple ridge marked out for his dream home.

Three years older, Sheila's attention span was utterly different: she was fleeing a bully-boyfriend Boston cop, openly used her sexuality to get what she wanted, had become an ace hustler at pool and, when she landed -- literally -- in Hartstone, Vermont, needed somewhere to lie low.

Rescue is the family-ties tale of how an innocent man-boy met a damaged woman, the harm she inflicted upon him ... and whether there was a way back.

Anita Shreve employs a sparse style to tell their story and at times her descriptions and dialogue appear too simplistic. It's as if she's deliberately played the understudy card rather than drumming up a dramatic lead role.

However this is part of Shreve's skill -- she has cleverly (and unusually) left readers to read between many of the lines and work for our own reward. It is interesting, too, how she has written the low-key but vital male relationships in Rescue, evoking the genuine bond between those life-and-death guys trained to salvage what they can from twisted scenes of injury and destruction.

Both Webster's partnerships -- first with crusty Burrows, then chattier Koenig -- are plausible in equal measure. Even under extreme pressure, they typically only ever say what they need to ... and it's always enough.

The lead character's job also allows for lots of emotional diversions which augment the novel's pace and tension (although the medical shorthand is at times irritating and confusing).

There's the high-school swimming dare gone terribly awry; the wide-eyed woman watching her husband cave under an agonising stroke; the school-bus crash that breaks the hearts of three sets of parents.

Webster became a parent by accident -- Sheila conceived within weeks of that clinical first meeting -- but his young mind quickly forged an abiding love for daughter Rowan. His wayward, jittery girlfriend explained her omission thus: "I felt that I could be careless with you because you made me feel safe."

Unfortunately, safety wasn't enough for Sheila and her spiralling addiction unravelled their short marriage, despite the desperate, bursting efforts of her husband.

A traumatic inevitable event drove the final, uncompromising wedge through Webster's wedding vows and his heartrending what-if lasted for almost two decades.

But when teenage Rowan shows similar slipped stitches to her mother over six moody, dangerous months Peter's single-parent faith falters.

Could the woman who caused such carnage, who had to be given the cruellest of ultimatums, really be the one to solder the situation?

Rescue is a solid, thought-provoking novel that's surprisingly easy to read given the many uncomfortable truths it presents. In particular, it's an evocative reminder that bitterness is pointless and that even the rockiest path to redemption can be smoother than it seems -- if circumstances and heart allow.

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