Playwright and novelist Cauley (Bridie and Finn, 1994) offers a chilling, beautifully characterized account of a family torn apart after a dual murder strikes their small New Jersey town on the eve of World War II.
The Wayland family assumed the status of New York City aristocracy until the Depression, when Byard Wayland squandered his fortune and his ferociously expedient widow, known as Mamu, reconstituted the country house at Millersburg, N.J., into a working family farm. At present, in 1939, the family consists of Mamu; her feeble-willed daughter, Eulalie; two teenage grandchildren, Estella and narrator Ben; an eccentric uncle, Josh, who lives on the property; and an African-American couple, Osceola and Priddie, loyal servants to the family and invaluable in keeping the land profitable. A double murder among the wealthier lake people rattles the small town and tests the family’s intrinsic loyalties: A famous New York tenor and a married society lady have been stabbed to death at the woman’s lake house, their bodies horribly mutilated. To the shock of everyone, Uncle Josh knew the woman—in fact, he’d been having an affair with her. The notoriety of the case casts a harsh spotlight on the Wayland household, where Mamu manipulates all of their lives, engendering enormous resentment, especially in Ben, who aims to finish school and break out beyond the small world of Millersburg. With tremendous skill and narrative patience, Cauley portrays this close-knit clan teeming with passionate secrets, and to the reader’s delight, each character manages to turn in an unexpected performance. In the end, all are transformed by love.
A heartfelt work, soundly crafted.