Buried secrets churn beneath the placid surface of a small town in this tragicomic debut novel.
Once a station on the Underground Railroad and later a Ku Klux Klan stronghold in the 1920s, the village of Heaven, Indiana, has a tangled history of grace and sin. Maher begins its beguiling saga in 1954, when Madame Gajikanes, a Romani fortuneteller passing through with a traveling carnival (her decidedly non-Romani real name is Nancy White), finds a newborn infant left in a basket at her tent. She duly raises the baby girl, named Nadja, to be a carnie performer who specializes in telling fortunes from dirty dinner dishes (“It’s like tea-leaf reading. I read from the pattern left on your plate after you’ve eaten”). Nadja’s wanderings intersect with the lives of Ellie Denson, a waitress at Clara’s Kitchen who wishes she too had the gumption to get out of Heaven, and Sue Ellen Sue Tipton, whose House of Beauty becomes the clearinghouse for artful gossip thanks to her phenomenal head for town lore. Also threading through the tale are aging farm couple Helen and Lester Breck. When Helen decides that Lester is not really Lester but a farmhand who looks just like him, the long-suffering husband takes his wife’s delusions in stride while covertly seeking consolation with other women. There’s more than enough death and derangement in Maher’s yarn for a prairie gothic potboiler, but she defuses the melodrama in a well-observed comedy of rural manners that breaks down larger villainies into smaller misdemeanors, tinging all of it with a wisp of magical realism. (Fortunetelling, it turns out, is 99 percent reconnaissance and 1 percent something else.) The author’s prose manages evocative flights—“Elephants paced restlessly, their immense feet beating slow syncopations”—but it dwells mainly in small-town naturalism rendered in pitch-perfect dialogue by sharply drawn characters whose folksiness still encompasses layers of complication and conflict. A bit like a darker-tinged version of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon narrative, Maher’s fictive universe unfolds with richly humorous details and expansive meaning.
A funny, poignant tale of an imperfect paradise.