An anthropologist explores a cargo cult in Papua New Guinea while her family back in Ireland struggles with a shocking revelation.
Liz, the hero of Laird’s third novel (Glover’s Mistake, 2009, etc.), is an academic who’s unlucky in love; as the story opens she’s caught her boyfriend with another man. Luckily, she’s written a successful book that gives a self-help twist to Claude Levi-Strauss’ theories about human behavior, which affords her a chance to escape New York to the Pacific island to host a BBC documentary about the founder of the Story, a quasi-Christian cult. First, though, she needs to visit her hometown in Ireland, where her sister, Allison, is getting married again. Her first husband was an abuser, but only after the nuptials does everybody discover that her second, Stephen, is worse: he was a shooter in an Irish Republican Army terrorist attack on a bar that killed five people. The novel alternates from Ireland to PNG, and there are some clear surface parallels: the home of the Story is called New Ulster, and Belef, the leader of the cargo cult, is in a dispute with the local mainline Christian group that echoes the Catholic-Protestant split during the Troubles. But the novel still feels like two tonally different novels imperfectly stitched together, one a Paul Theroux–esque exploration of a foreign land from an outsider perspective, the other a more Anne Enright–ish domestic study mainly concerned with Allison pressing Stephen to reckon with his past. Only occasionally does Laird oversell the connection between the two threads (“This family is like a cult we all follow but nobody remembers why!” Allison exclaims). But though faith and family remain topic A throughout, the dramas and circumstances on Ireland and PNG are so different that the connection feels forced.
Two intriguing storylines that, like feuding family members, have a hard time talking to one another.