An amorphous and depressing account of a young woman’s disappearance and the anguish suffered by her friends and relatives, told in an oblique style that generates much heat but little light.
The New Zealand-born Gunn (The Place You Return to Is Home, 1999, etc.) sets her third novel in Scotland, in a creepy, backwoods town called Featherstone. Far removed from anywhere of significance, it’s basically a crossroads dominated by the Railton Hotel, whose bar serves as the town’s spiritual center. The Railton is run by Margaret Farley, a lonely middle-aged floozie who usually picks one of her customers at the end of the evening to take upstairs for the night. One of her employees is Renee Anderson, whose teenaged daughter Mary Susan is eventually raped by local boy Ray Weldon. Ray is still carrying a torch for his old girlfriend Francie, who disappeared mysteriously some years before. Francie haunts the town, both literally and figuratively—her uncle Sonny Johanssen looks up in his garden one day and sees her (or, rather, perceives her, since it’s far from clear that she’s actually there) smiling at him benignly, and Ray Weldon also comes to the conclusion (on the same day) that Francie has returned. He wanders the streets of town, looking into all of the places he and Francie spent time in as he recalls how he fell in love with her years before. Meanwhile, Reverend Harland is going through a bad patch with his unhappy wife Katie, who is tired of him and of life in general. The Reverend is pretty depressed, too, having to deal with the aftermath of Mary Susan’s rape and still compose a sermon for Sunday. Francie never materializes by story’s end, but by that time we can understand her reluctance to return. Featherstone is a good place to keep away from.
A mangled plot and leaden prose sink a tale that begins well in a quasi-Gothic mode but then becomes pretentious and unintelligible.