McFarland (The Music Room, 1990; A Face at the Window, 1997, etc.) plunges the reader into the maelstrom of grief that arises in the aftermath of the random murder of a college professor.
Malcolm Vaughn is shot to death by a stranger on a suburban Boston street one night while his wife Sarah and eight-year-old son Harry look on. The killer gets away and, despite diligent police work, is never caught. From the hospital emergency room, Sarah calls Malcolm’s best friend, a black Vietnam vet named Deckard Jones, whose checkered past initially causes suspicion to turn toward him and Sarah. But this is not a crime novel, and the scenes of police investigation and media exploitation feel forced. McFarland’s real subject is grief, the deep and wide swath it cuts across his characters’ lives, and the minute gradations of anxiety, anger, desperation, and guilt each experiences. The point of view shifts repeatedly, as if McFarland doesn’t want us to miss a second of anyone’s ordeal. Racked with self-blame and despair that takes the form of literal back pain, Sarah is both unable to work and unable to mother her son. As a result, her emotional paralysis forces Harry into an unnatural stoicism despite grotesque nightmares and an onslaught of secret bedwetting. Deckard’s friendship with the Vaughns, especially with Harry, is intense (though the connection through Malcolm, explained late in the story, remains a contrivance), but his ability to offer real support is thwarted by his own crisis of memory activated by Malcolm’s death. Deckard and Sara’s relationship is wonderfully complex, platonic yet laden with misunderstandings born of well-meaning affection as Sarah gropes toward “a bearable future.”
Slow-paced and heavy going at times but well worth reading for its profound and unsentimental exploration of the grieving process.