A forensic anthropologist encounters a series of complicated interconnections in this novel.
Dr. Clarissa Circle, an English major–turned–forensic anthropologist, has a mantra: “No one ever touches anyone.” She insists on it as her guiding principle, but it’s often questioned by other characters and tested by events, which connect to one another in numerous ways. In 1999, at age 32, Clarissa begins her first postdoctoral job as a new professor at the University of Kentucky. When a “puzzling glut of ritual murders” occurs in the area, Clarissa becomes a consultant to the Lexington police. She and Sgt. Willy Cox begin a relationship that’s later rocked by mutual infidelities and jealousies. Clarissa analyzes skeletons found in a mass grave, which could relate to a rumored “blood cult” from the early 1970s. These rumors are confirmed by Methuselah, a former hippie who attended the university in that era. In a local forest shack, two dead bodies are discovered that have been there for a considerable length of time—an apparent double suicide. Meanwhile, a mentally ill man stalks a female student; another woman lives in his boardinghouse whom Clarissa dubs “Petite Artiste,” as she often stands outside and sketches Clarissa’s rented house—the same house where a woman whose body was found at the mass gravesite used to live. Another female boarder is romantically obsessed with the artist and secretly follows her. At the same time, three English students share a house—seemingly a separate story, yet their lives have points of connection with other characters, too. And an old man becomes a Lexington street-corner prophet, his stream of phrases taken as oracular by growing crowds.
As these various mysteries and relationships unfold, are solved, remain obscure, or end in violence or romance, characters consider the nature of chance and patterns. Along the way, Taylor (Pineapple, 2017, etc.) tells an entertainingly complicated, interwoven story that is, by turns, funny, horrifying, and tender. Philosophy, physics, literature, and historical events, such as the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath, all play roles, making this a novel of ideas as well as a complex murder mystery. One of its chief ideas is the question of how much people actually contribute to pattern-making rather than simply perceiving it. At one point, for instance, Methuselah, in a spot that was once occupied by a Civil War monument, comments on the “fermenting connection among a renegade Confederate general, his stallion, a methhead, and a hoary-haired gent babbling unrelated babbles. Obviously, my friend Willy the dashing detective was getting to me with his Jungian synchronicities.” Different narrators, each with his or her own style, swap around storytelling duties, providing checks on different points of view as well as skillful revelations of character. It is somewhat disappointing when it’s revealed that a key to Clarissa’s character is repressed childhood trauma, which feels like an overused plot device. However, this is a relative quibble among so much inventive brio.
An intelligent, deeply felt, quirky, and original novel that lives up to its ambitions.