Living with his sister, Klara, in the aftermath of their parents' deaths in a car accident, Milo Crane becomes fixated on the connection between Klara and Henri, an odd gardener who seems plucked from one of Milo's famous father's gruesome horror novels.
Milo, who narrates the book, is obsessed with details. He spends much of his time building model Greek warships and shipmen. He was happy when Klara returned to their New England home following a brief failed marriage—never mind the profound state of sadness she was in. But her relationship with Henri, a supposed devotee of their father (who wrote novels such as Fair Weather Fiends in rhyming couplets, samples of which run through the novel), and the secrets she shares with the gardener drive Milo into a feverish state of distraction. Paranoia mixes with fact as discoveries Henri makes, including a trove of letters, upend accepted truths about the past. The story unfolds in a kind of hothouse atmosphere until actual events and made-up ones intertwine. None of the characters are to be trusted, least of all Milo (especially since he finds nothing funny about Some Like It Hot). At its best, the book bewitches even as it creates unease. There's an odd formality to the language, possibly a reflection of Barsa's being raised in a German household and not speaking English until he attended school. Fiction may be stranger than truth in some settings; in this one, truth keeps pace step for unsettling step.
With his first novel, the influences of which include the gothic visions of Hawthorne, the morally charged horror of Shirley Jackson, and the twisty storytelling of Italo Calvino, Barsa emerges as a unique voice in contemporary fiction.