Here is a novel that sticks to your brain like a tongue to ice. Its sticking power comes from its engaging thirty-seven year-old narrator, Linda, describing the crime she witnessed unfolding in her fourteenth year.
Linda grows up in the Minnesotan backwoods – ‘The Walleye Capital of the World’ – her every thought framed by its twisted branches and frozen lake. Her parents are distant figures, her mother a lukewarm born-again Christian disillusioned from years in a hippy commune. Linda’s ‘the freak’ at school, drifting idly along, until she starts babysitting for a young mother who’s newly arrived across the lake. Then, saying very little, she establishes from the outset that something wasn’t right with her new family.
The first two-thirds make for compelling reading, teasing us with glimpses of something chilly under the surface. Is it a cult? Is it child abuse? And so on. Linda senses something wrong with her infant charge, Paul, but can’t put her finger on it. “I am a perfect child of God!” he cries when she has to discipline him, though he seems coddled, distracted and withdrawn most of the time. When the father, Leo, does return, he brings his own personal brand of Christian Science in tow. Suddenly the strained upbeat-ness and cheer feels sinister.
I won’t spoil the reveal, unlike other reviews. It’s not sensational, anyway, only sad. It’s disturbing but less than Linda’s muted reaction to it. There’s a chain of responsibility for this tragedy that, by the end of the book, we wish would fall short of our wiser-than-her-years narrator. But she is, by her own admission, implicated, if only by omission. The novel derives its moral force from the choice it gives us as to the degree of her innocence or guilt.
It’s also full of such telling detail, such razor-sharp description, that I felt the need to Google Emily Fridlund, just to make sure she’s comfortably older than me. For a debut novel it’s astonishingly self-assured and controlled. From a trove of sentences that glitter, here is my favourite, as she spies on her new neighbours through a telescope:
‘She went to the counter and back, she sliced things on the boy’s plate. She made wedges of green, triangles of yellow, discs of something brown. She blew on his soup. She grinned when he grinned. I could see their teeth across the lake.‘
I could relate, on some level, to the mother-daughter relationship too. Her ex-hippy mother is exasperated that her daughter doesn’t appreciate the freedom that she never had growing up. Here’s Linda, returned from a weekend away with the neighbours, listening to her mother from upstairs:
‘My mother sat at the table below waiting for me to come and talk to her. I could hear her weight shifting, the pine floorboards groaning beneath her. I could sense that she wanted me to climb down the ladder, to let gravity take me by the ankles, to sit with her and tell her about Duluth. She wanted me to want to tell her about Patra and her family – at last – so she could deride them and their middle-class values, but at the same time be proud of me for getting along so well, for knowing how the world worked, for not fighting it like she had, and did.‘
There is much more to it, including a self-sufficient subplot involving perfectly-realised disgraced history teacher Mr. Grierson. Before that, he struggles to elicit answers from his students:
‘She blinked. He nodded at her, promising implicitly that, whatever she said, he’d agree. She gave a deer-like lick of her lips.’
(Boy, I’ve been there.)