In Swan’s awkward transition from short stories (The Deep: and Other Stories, 2003) to novels, a Canadian town tries to make sense of a man’s heinous crimes.
When Naomi marries William Heath in late-19th-century Liverpool, she knows little about him. She wants to escape the lonely house she shares with her father, and William promises stability and comfort, particularly when he is with their three children, Sadie, Tom and Willie. But tragedy strikes, and diphtheria takes all three, prompting husband and wife to cross the river toward the Canadian countryside. There, William takes a job as a bookkeeper and the couple has two more children, the mysteriously ill Lily and the precocious, scholarly Rachel. It becomes apparent that William had been deeply wounded as a child, and the scars drive him to do the unthinkable—after his boss charges him with embezzlement, William buys a gun and murders his family. The town reels in the wake of his crime. Rachel’s teacher, Miss Alice, obsesses about the final moment that William came to collect his daughter from school. Lily’s doctor is haunted, too, knowing that one day he could have cured the child. His son, meanwhile, a friend of Rachel’s, contemplates a gift she had bestowed on him. Even inanimate objects have a say—the family’s old house, a worn button and Rachel’s old drawings. William is finally hung for his crimes, but even as years pass the mark of grief remains. Swan captures a moment of bewilderment well, but though her adoption of multiple points of view gives a broader portrait of the town’s mourning, it also prevents the reader from creating a lasting relationship with any one narrator.
A haunting story with great emotional potential buckles under sluggish plotting and poor stylistic choices.