With quietly powerful prose and carefully nuanced description, a first-novelist creates a satisfying fictional world inhabited by complicated people painfully coming to terms with their common history.
The plot revolves around a mystery, which is well handled but secondary to the characters' development. In 1919, when unmarried Amanda Starkey leaves her nursing job in Milwaukee under duress, she goes home to her sister, Mattie, and three-year-old niece, Ruth, in rural Wisconsin. One bitter winter night shortly before her wounded husband, Carl, is due to return from WWI, Mattie falls through the ice and drowns in the lake that surrounds their island farm. In the years that follow, Carl and Amanda share responsibility for raising Ruth, maintaining an uneasy truce even as he struggles against her evasions to understand exactly how and why Mattie drowned. The circumstances of that drowning are slowly revealed, and Schwarz avoids most of the pitfalls of the unravel-the-awful-secret genre. Yes, there are plenty of awful secrets to share or hide. Yes, Ruth almost drowned too, and yes, Amanda was hiding an illegitimate pregnancy, but the story never turns to melodrama. The author's concern is less with keeping readers in suspense than with exploring the damage inflicted by the human drive to protect not only oneself but those one loves. Schwarz keeps the focus on the choices, interactions, and all-too-frequent misunderstandings of her people, all of whom react to the effects of tragedy with surprising complexity. The narrative jumps from viewpoint to viewpoint a bit too jerkily at times, but the charm of its detail and the generous insight into even small, imperfect lives more than compensate for minor technical lapses.
An engrossing debut from a writer to watch.