In this cinematic, engaging first novel, The Girl on the Train, some key classic devices of thriller/mystery fiction are made fresh and modern, most notably in the challenges of multiple narrators—the unreliable, alcoholic, voyeuristic commuter of the title, Rachel, whose “evidence” about a missing woman is complicated by the self-interested and naïve points of view of the two other narrators, Anna and Megan—and the ever-present devices of mobile phones and computers. Rachel’s contradictory and ruthless self-awareness belies a personality as apparently limp as the ominous pile of abandoned clothing that she notices—and she is a great noticer—day after day lying by the railroad tracks. We expect both will be picked up, dusted off, filled out, claimed. The story ends with a troubling narrative surprise, a dark twist on girl power and sisterhood, and a supportable claim to the runaway train of best-sellerdom that surely awaits.
In this debut novel, recently named an Editor’s Choice by the New York Times, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth tells the story of fifteen-year-old Kevin during a formative summer at his grandfather’s home in the coal-mining region of Kentucky, as he becomes entangled in the violence that erupts around the mining company’s practice of “mountain-topping”—the blasting of the tops of mountains to more efficiently mine the coal within. The plot humanizes several long-entrenched conflicts within the community, as some fight against the environmental devastation that is immediate and irrevocable, and destroys more than land, while others demand their badly needed subsistence jobs. Written in a lyrical prose with a keen ear for dialogue, vividly drawn (if, at times, gently clichéd) characters, almost rhapsodic descriptions of nature, and encompassing historical material within romance and adventure, the book avoids polemic, exploring the best and worst in human nature, finding instead respect and insight as redemptive forces.
Who in America has not read and thrilled to or been appalled by “The Lottery”? This fictional treatment of the great Shirley Jackson’s life (soon to be an HBO film) imagines the years near its end through the adoring witness of a young girl-wife boarding with her ambitious young professor-husband in Jackson’s hectic, college-life-shadowed Hudson Valley home. The novel evokes the obsessive, claustrophobic desperation of an Eleanor, and traces the betrayals and demands that artists and egotists inflict on those closest to them, while life is lived on in ways both unforgivably damaging and profoundly ordinary. Jackson’s real-life disapproving mother, whose presence is felt throughout this book, like the spirits who haunt any unhappy family, famously asked her daughter, “Can’t you write anything nice?” No, thanks be, she could not.