Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 248 pages; 2005.
Jean, a photojournalist, takes her husband Thomas, a struggling poet, and young daughter Billie on assignment with her to the New Hampshire coast.
They sail on an old boat captained by Thomas’s younger brother, Rich, and Rich’s new girlfriend, Adaline, towards the unusually named island of Smuttynose. Here, in 1873, two Norwegian immigrants were murdered. A third woman, Maren Hontvedt, escaped.
Jean’s assignment is to photograph the bleak, now abandoned island for a magazine feature on the murders, for which a local man was later tried and executed.
Intrigued by the case, Jean goes slightly off brief and decides to do some research of her own. In a local museum she chances upon a sheaf of papers written by Maren Hontvedt that reveal exactly what happened…
Anita Shreve has crafted a beautifully written suspense novel, combining two narratives into one seamless story.
The first narrative, not necessarily the main one, is Maren’s, which is composed through a series of extraordinary letters. These letters detail Maren’s home life in Norway, her relationships with her siblings and her “accidental” marriage to a fisherman who whisked her away to a new life in America, where she endured much hardship and loneliness on Smuttynose Island.
When her two siblings also emigrate, the happy family reunion is thwarted by the claustrophobic confines of a small house on a windswept, treeless island, where money and comfort is in short supply. Through a series of misunderstandings and unfortunate incidents, the tension rises to that inevitable winter’s night when Maren’s sister and sister-in-law are brutally murdered.
The second narrative is Jean’s. Like Maren, she is also a victim of circumstance, trapped in a disappointing marriage and plagued by petty jealousies and possessive behaviour. The more she researches Maren’s story the more she realises that all is not as it seems – in her own life as much as Maren’s.
Is her husband having an affair with the beguiling Adaline? Is he doing it on board the boat right under her nose? Or is the claustrophobic confines of the boat – and the island’s dark history – making her paranoid?
As Jean’s suspicions rise so too does her emotional paralysis, until an unexpected storm threatens to bring every little bit of flotsam and jetsam of her marriage to the surface – with devastating consequences.
Ultimately, this is another classic Shreve novel that grips from the first page. While the juxtaposition of both stories sometimes feels “clunky” the author more than makes up for this by delivering a well researched tale that packs not one but two surprise punches at the end.