The origin of Elizabeth Brundage’s fearsome fourth novel, All Things Cease to Appear, is a crime that happened over two decades ago.
A woman was murdered with her young daughter in the house. “My husband was in training at the time—he was a resident [physician]—when I heard about it, and our first daughter was three,” Brundage says. “And I thought, ‘Oh my god!’ I couldn’t imagine if I was murdered and my little girl was running around the house all day. That just sat with me for years.”
Three novels and a teaching career intervened before Brundage confronted that chilling prompt. She is the author of The Doctor’s Wife (2004), Somebody Else’s Daughter (2008), and A Stranger Like You (2010) and was recently the visiting writer-in-residence at Skidmore College in upstate New York.
All Things Cease to Appear is the haunting tale of a young family that relocates to a small town upstate, from New York City, in the summer of 1978. George Clare is an ambitious art history professor, specializing in the work of influential American landscapist George Inness. Catherine, his wife, a talented muralist and restorer, has put her career on hold to raise their three-year-old daughter, Franny. Due to a recently befallen on-premises tragedy, they’re able to buy the old Hale farm at a bargain price.
Half a year later, Catherine is dead—discovered by George with an ax in her head. He scoops up their traumatized daughter, who’s been home with her mother’s corpse all day, to speed to a neighbor’s house for help.
“June didn’t have children of her own, but she had raised dogs her whole life and saw the same dark knowing in the child’s eyes that confirmed what all animals understood, that the world was full of evil and beyond comprehension,” Brundage writes.
An incomprehensible evil at the dark heart of All Things Cease to Appear is sociopathy, as personified by George: He refuses to let the town sheriff question Franny, the only witness. He lawyers up. He skips town. He never returns. And he refuses to discuss the murder with his daughter, as she grows—as if it never happened.
“Sociopaths have a certain dissonance to the conventional music, which I think is really interesting,” Brundage says. “There’s a sense of performance in what they do in their lives: their camera is always running, and they’re center stage. It’s all about them. Narcissism is a word that’s thrown around a lot these days, but it’s combined with a kind of arrogance. People are always making excuses for George, trying to ignore the fact of who he really is.”
“If he was a liar, then Catherine was the perfect match,” she writes. “She chose to deny his true nature just as his own mother did, contriving logical excuses for illogical acts, or reasonable grounds for unreasonable behavior, sometimes even blaming themselves for his failures. Poor George! He was overtired, overworked, overpressured—he just needs rest, to be left alone! And George never failed to exploit their misunderstanding.”
Sociopathic tendencies do not a murderer make—much to the consternation of Sheriff Travis Lawton, who’s bedeviled by a profound paucity of evidence in the Clare case. Three orphaned boys, an unstable mistress, colleagues, competitors, and at least one restless ghost will factor into an investigation spanning more than 20 years.
To help write compellingly from George’s perspective, Brundage drew upon her experience of growing up in Newark, New Jersey. In the 1970s, her brother struggled with a heroin addiction, making him dangerous and erratic.
“I was terrified of him, quite afraid, so that was my early experience of living with somebody who had a dark pathology,” she says. “You didn’t know how that’s going to affect you at any given moment or time, so any scenes [in the book] of characters being uncertain and afraid where they live—I grew up with that. I saw early on that everyone has an element of darkness to them that can be called upon at times.”
All Things Cease to Appear is more than the gorgeous portrait of a sociopath. It’s a lyrical literary thriller that unfurls unhurriedly, imparting a sense of foreboding profounder than your typical page-turner. And as Kirkus warns in its starred review, “with a storyline that tightens like a constrictor, this is a book that you won’t want to read alone late at night.”Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.