A debut novel about the nature of guilt and the impossibility of escaping the past.
High school senior Alice Pearson is ready to leave her past behind her and make a new life far away from upstate New York. But Alice’s plans change when she meets the charismatic Mr. Wyck. Instead of going to college, she moves into his big, ramshackle house in the woods, where she becomes part of an ersatz family devoted to sex, drugs, and idiosyncratic spiritual beliefs. Readers will not be surprised when things go terribly, terribly wrong; indeed, that they will is clear from the very start. The narrative begins in 1999, 20 years after the events that changed Alice’s life. She’s adopted a new name and built a new identity as a professor of folklore, but this doesn’t stop a documentary filmmaker from finding her. Nor does it protect her from Wyck’s fanatical online following. As her carefully constructed existence unravels, Alice must confront dangers from within and without, including her own role in a string of murders. Shifting back and forth in time, Hahn maintains a fine balance between mystery and disclosure. The atmosphere throughout is tense and subtly creepy, and the folkloric elements are an interesting, original touch. Alice’s specialty is a group of ballads and tales in which a murder victim’s body transforms—a breastbone turns into a harp, hair is used as violin strings—and reveals the name of his or her killer. This material is so rich and resonant that readers may wish there had been more of it. The other disappointment is the extent to which Mr. Wyck’s household resembles Charles Manson’s and his “family,” right down to Manson’s musical ambitions. The inability to forget these real-life murderers makes it difficult, sometimes, to believe in Hahn’s fictional sociopaths. But these are minor complaints.
Hahn is a writer to watch for fans of sophisticated psychological suspense.