A historical novel set in 1840s Massachusetts intertwines the stories of a Shaker community, a world-weary fire inspector and a beleaguered farm family.
Silas, a depraved drunken wastrel, has ruined the prosperous family farm once owned by his late father-in-law, who died suddenly and mysteriously. He wants to sell the land but must first get wife May out of the way. He makes the mistake of revealing his intent to teenage daughter Polly, whom he has been sexually abusing. Fearing for their lives, May, Polly and younger brother Ben (whom Silas had tried to drown in infancy) escape by night but not before Polly drops a lamp on the floor near the bed where her father lies in a stupor. Flames consume the farmhouse, but Polly thinks she sees Silas running into the yard as they flee. Miles away, May indentures her children to be raised by the Shakers, a celibate Christian community, and disappears. Simon, a private detective in the employ of (and, due to a tragic childhood incident, lifelong thrall to) Hurlbut, a wealthy bully, is sent to sift through the ashes. Suspecting foul play after he finds Silas’ body some distance from the charred ruins, Simon reports the conflagration as accidental because a lengthy inquest would thwart Hurlbut’s speedy acquisition of the property. Racked with guilt over her role in the fire, and cut off from Ben by the Shakers’ strict segregation of the sexes, Polly finds comfort in the Shakers’ carefully ordered, self-sustaining way of life and a form of kinship with her roommate, Sister Charity. When Polly, in a trance, summons imaginary angel companions, the community reveres her as a mystic or “Visionist.” As Urquhart explores the various enslavements that bind all of the characters, Simon’s investigation becomes a high-stakes race against time. The plot is burdened by too many narrators and too much Shaker minutia. Nevertheless, Urquhart’s fine craftsmanship covers a multitude of sins.
An impressive debut.