A quasi-mystery that spends too much time within the mind of the uninteresting first-person narrator.
The Scottish-born Burnside (A Lie About My Father: A Memoir, 2007, etc.) returns to his native land with a plot that suggests the presence of the devil in an isolated seaside village, while leaving the identity of that devil open-ended. Protagonist Michael Gardiner sets the plot in motion when he learns of the suicide of a woman he dated as a teenager. The woman, Moira Birnie, set her car ablaze with her young children inside. Curiously, she left behind her 14-year-old daughter Hazel. Michael suspects that Moira killed her children and herself to escape her devil of a husband, Tom. But why has she spared Hazel? After doing his calendar calculations, Michael suspects that Hazel isn’t Tom’s daughter, but his own. Since Michael’s marriage is all but dead, and most of the marriages in the village seem as troubled as Moira and Tom’s apparently was, Michael’s obsession with Hazel provides new life (at least in his mind) for the two of them. Yet in the novel’s evocation of Lolita, there’s something a little creepy in the way that Hazel becomes his life’s focus. Within the yo-yo of the novel’s chronology (as Michael spends more time living in the past than the present), the reader learns that the Gardiners have long endured an adversary relationship with the rest of the village, that Michael and his parents have kept fatal secrets from each other and that Michael has a history of both sleepwalking and dreaming a parallel reality that he sometimes has trouble distinguishing from his waking one. With Michael’s insistence that he’s losing his mind as the novel progresses, it becomes harder for the reader to distinguish what’s really happening. And whether the fault lies with the novelist or his protagonist, none of the characters that Michael describes seem fully formed.
The novel ultimately ties some knots but leaves too many strands loose.