A pregnant Iraqi-American war veteran hides out on the property of a young seminarian in this novel.
Theodore Dash has returned to his mother’s northern Michigan hometown after the death of his grandfather. He learns that his relative has left him property while his brother, Nate, who is in the military in Iraq, is bequeathed $10,000. Theodore has been in a seminary and is conflicted about whether to return to it. The town of Empire is a magical place to him, a lush paradise on the Lake Michigan shore, full of happy childhood memories and surrounded by blooming apple orchards. There is also Brigid Birdsey, a young bar owner, whom Theodore is growing closer to. Throughout the narrative, poems written by a woman named Zaima al-Aziz appear, and eventually Zaima herself arrives in Empire. She is a young veteran just back from the Iraq war, and she is in the early stages of pregnancy. She finds refuge in a church but soon makes her way to the Dash homestead. Hiding out in the barn, she keeps a low profile, unwilling to return to her parents’ home in Dearborn, and not wanting to make contact with the Dash family, at least not yet. Theodore’s mother, Isabelle, a high-powered Chicago lawyer, was “never cut out to swim” in this piddling “little fish bowl.” She encourages Theodore to sell the property and use the money to help his brother get settled once he returns from Iraq. When Zaima finally becomes known to Theodore, a story begins to emerge that calls into question family relationships and everyone’s long-term plans. Packard (Paint the Bird, 2013, etc.) paints a gorgeous picture of northern Michigan and is clearly well-versed in the ins and outs of life around the Great Lakes, from small towns to Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive. The emotions that these places evoke in the characters are well-described, as is the desire to be near people but not too close. But the novel meanders in the middle, and the absence of a strong story arc becomes obvious. Details about characters are revealed slowly over time, making it a long wait for the inevitable confrontation that is bound to occur near the end of the book.
A beautiful family tale with lifelike characters that could have benefited from a stronger structure.