Kreidler’s novel charts the growth and decline of the tragic Neiway family across the first half of the 20th century.
When we meet Zack Neiway, he has already married two women, fathered eight children and died. The story then jumps back in time from small-town Wisconsin in the late 1950s to 1916, where two girls, Rachel and Martha, brush one another’s hair and dream about the future. This first of many leaps in time and perspective provides an early glimpse of Zack’s first and second wives. Rachel and Zack soon meet and marry, leaving Martha behind. Rachel gives birth to two daughters and two sons, but an increasingly dissatisfying home life is altogether shattered when she commits suicide. The act seems entirely out of character for a devoutly Catholic mother—faith, its powers and failures are major themes in the narrative—but flashbacks reveal that Rachel’s death is tied to her horrifying discovery about Zack and his daughters. Into this darkness walks Martha, Rachel’s oldest friend, who, if she doesn’t love Zack, at least feels duty-bound to care for the family Rachel left behind. Martha takes over Rachel’s role completely, becoming wife to her husband, mother to her children and, eventually, bearing Zack three daughters and a son. Martha is quick-witted and resourceful, but entirely oblivious to the misdeeds of her husband—which only continue, described in scenes that grow increasingly graphic. The book tells of one family’s twisted secret as it plays out over several decades; it’s an ambitious task, and one the author handles by constantly switching the focus from one character to the next. But there are so many Neiways, and so many strange and terrible things happening to them, that the reader becomes desensitized. Kreidler tackles an extreme taboo, and packs in too many tragic and exotic deaths on top of it. But in-between, he also crafts sentences that are delicate and moving. “The dress smelled somewhat of mothballs, which embarrassed Addie a bit in front of her classmates, but the odor faded, and she understood that life was limited”—writing like this is quietly sad, but gets lost amid so much overt tragedy.
An utterly disturbing, but often absorbing, family saga with lots of moving pieces.