Story of a startling, revelatory night of violence for a quiet retired couple who shelter a young psychotic camper.
Thayer (A Certain Slant of Light, 2000) seems determined to flex her novelistic muscles, though her narrative starts tranquilly enough, with our close, elderly couple setting out in the bucolic October morning to paint watercolors of pines and mushrooms: Jessica taught years of high-school history, while her husband, Carl, a Holocaust survivor, is a retired surgeon. Their three grown children have mostly entered the wider world, except the oldest, Sylvie, who is schizophrenic and living in a nursing home some miles away. Little by little, details of the daughter’s dangerously erratic behavior over the years emerge before the home calls to say that Sylvie has run off with another inmate, her boyfriend. There’s already a note of panic in the house when the lost “camper” appears at the door and pleads to spend the night. Jonah is an insomniac and increasingly unstable; he seizes Carl’s gun, ties him to a chair, and precedes to get to “know” the couple intimately because that’s what the Lord (and Sylvie, his girlfriend) tells him to do. The tale grows increasingly deranged as Jonah fixates on Carl’s concentration-camp tattoo, and a whole graphic saga of his true Gypsy identity and horrific escape from Birkenau is wrenchingly revealed. Safety seems key to the novel—the safety of feeling loved and sheltered, the safety of hiding behind weakness, and the safety of inventing pretty stories to make a life more palatable. All of which Thayer challenges admirably, but her determined aim to shock through violence borders on the gratuitous. She has a maddeningly deliberative style (“I gather bones of dead animals,” says Jessie. “Why? I don’t know”), which is effective in building suspense, but Jessie’s final cold-blooded act seems almost tit-for-tat, making her story as significant as Carl’s.
A tale told in chilling crescendo.