Southern novelist Fowler (Staircase of a Thousand Steps, 2001, etc.) tries for the profound and moving as she tells of a good woman and friend whose sudden death provokes big questions.
Florida-set, the story is an awkward mix of mystery, gothic ghoul, and politically correct attitudes. A cobbled patchwork of different voices includes those of a transsexual and former Marine troubled by his Vietnam experience; a doctor whose wife recently died from breast cancer; a bad-boy novelist; and the dead Murmur Lee Harp. And the tale they tell is so heavy with foreshadowing that the mystery of Murmur Lee’s death is soon apparent—despite all the purple ink (“I become an ocean tippling in the cupped petals of a morning glory,” etc.). On New Year’s Eve 2001, Murmur Lee, a divorced healer and bar-owner, joins her new lover, novelist Billy Speare, on his boat on the river. They drink and listen to music, but suddenly, when Billy puts on a new and unusual CD, Murmur Lee falls into the dark river and drowns. While Murmur Lee adjusts to being dead, her friends gather in Iris Haven, Murmur’s hometown, to mourn her: among them are the transsexual Edith Piaf, former Marine; Dr. Z, who loved both his wife Katrina and Murmur; Lucinda, a Mennonite artist who also loved Murmur but from a distance; and Charleston Rowena Mudd, a childhood friend who leaves Harvard to join the mourners in Iris Haven. Free in death to visit both past and present, Murmur discovers that she’s a product of a rape, which helps explain her father’s coolness and her mother’s religiosity; revisits her own ecstatic religious experiences, eventually diagnosed as a rare form of epilepsy; recalls how her marriage broke up when her husband couldn’t deal with their small daughter’s fatal leukemia; learns how an ancestor came to give Iris Haven its name, and watches her friends grieve—and move on.
Plot and prose overload, with shades of Alice Sebold’s Lovely Bones.