A mysterious visitor from Uzbekistan forms an unlikely friendship with a stunned young woman in retreat from life in rural Pennsylvania.
Four years after the car crash that killed her husband, Amos, Kathleen is still “enveloped in a haze of fear” that clearly has a source beyond the wreck she survived. Having quit college at Amos’ behest, she’s now marking time, working at a store in a state park visited off-season by only a few hunters, hikers—and, one day in December 2007, a walk-in named Daniil who wants to stay at the park hostel. Being the only guest suits him just fine; it emerges that people are looking for Daniil and he has good reason to hide. “I betrayed people,” he tells Kathleen, but whether he was a government informant or something worse remains a question as the two tentatively bond over books (Crime and Punishment perhaps a slightly too-obvious metaphor) and chess. Around them, St. Vincent quietly paints a portrait of small-town, working-class America, hollowed out by economic insecurity, where the only way out seems to be joining the Army, like Kathleen’s brother and her best friend Beth’s husband, to fight wars whose purposes no one understands. “They sold us pain and said it was fine,” Kathleen thinks late in the novel, as she’s begun to acknowledge how deeply angry she is for many reasons. “They had such contempt for us, and they thought we didn’t see it. Just because we lived where we lived and were who we were.” The author’s background as a human rights attorney and advocate for victims of domestic violence serves her well as she makes subtle connections between socio-economic powerlessness and male rage as the story moves toward a harrowing denouement that hauntingly suggests even evildoers can be consumed with remorse. St. Vincent closes with an image as ambivalent and resonant as the rest of her fine work: “light interrupted by darkness, darkness interrupted by light.”
Sensitive prose conveys both compassion and outrage in this impressive debut.