Despite graphic deaths and a variety of police cases, Yarbrough’s 11th work of fiction (The Realm of Last Chances, 2013, etc.) is less a murder mystery than an exploration of how abruptly lives can go off the rails.
In 2006, Los Angeles Times reporter Richard Brennan is spending Christmas with his adored wife, Julia, and daughter, Anna, in Julia’s native Krakow. If the opening scene of domestic happiness, tree-trimming in a cozy apartment, feels too perfect to last, it is. A car accident kills Anna and Julia. Trapped in the passenger seat, Richard is sure he will never forget the face of the other driver, who glances into their car before fleeing the scene. That driver, never identified by the police, is Bogdan Baranowski, who's rushing to the hospital. A German shepherd has mauled his friend Marek as they made a botched robbery attempt, an act of desperation by men facing ruin in post-communist Poland. Over the novel’s 10-year span, Bogdan and Richard struggle separately to come to terms with what happened that night. Richard allows himself to become stunted by his grief. After helping another reporter cover the murder/suicide of a couple and their three children—a tragedy that, like the car crash, combines an accident of bad timing with bad decision-making—Richard realizes he’s lost his ambition as a serious journalist. Meanwhile, Bogdan drinks to excess and loses his job. His wife leaves him. He takes the rap for a minor crime and spends a year in prison to expiate his guilt over the Brennan deaths. But Bogdan’s potential goodness will have readers rooting for him. Actually, readers will root for all the novel’s tenderly drawn, flawed characters.
Despite his book's depiction of dark realities—the guilt and despair of the characters’ interior lives is matched by political turmoil in both the U.S. and Eastern Europe—Yarbrough’s pensively hopeful view of people’ capacity to endure, even prosper, shines through.