A murder mystery based on true events- 4 stars
Source- own paperback copy
Abacus (Little Brown Group)-1997
Anita Shreve is one of my favourite authors. I love her lyrical writing style, which sometimes read like poetry. She sets a lot of her books by the sea, favouring the mood of the ocean as a metaphor for the feelings of the characters and the action within some of her story lines, and this novel is no exception.
I was intrigued to learn that this is a fictionalised account of two real murders that took place in the late 19th century in a small coastal archipelago in the United States (close to Maine and New Hampshire). This was a murder case I had no prior knowledge of until picking this book up, and now having read this novel I am actually eager to know more about those events and have learned that there are a wealth of books on this subject to turn to.
Set in the 1870’s, this novel is a fictionalised account of a brutal double murder that took place on the bleak island of Smuttynose, an isolated fishing community with few inhabitants. Two Norwegian women were killed, but a third woman survived and provided crucial testimony that saw a man hanged for the chilling transgressions. In the present day, a photographer, Jean, visits the island to research its gruesome history, with particular interest in the murders- of which there has always been doubt that the right person was blamed for the crimes…
I found that though this novel covered quite a lot of themes (emigration, conflict, disintegrating marriages amongst others), that it never grew confusing or dull. The plot was perfectly paced with the right degrees of tension and drama- particularly towards the end of the novel, with a storm that was just so effectively and timely placed. There was such a sense of claustrophobia drawn from the plot as well- people cooped up on an island and all of the emotions garnered from that. Like all Shreve books, the setting itself was effortlessly portrayed and I really got a feel for the surroundings of Smuttynose and the other neighbouring islands. I have since googled Smuttynose and it is exactly what I had imagined from reading this story!
Initially I found it a bit jarring that the contemporary storyline ran parallel and interwove with the narrative covering the events of the murders. Not only did we have a written account (from the survivor Maren herself) separately, but there was also a quite matter of fact recap during the present-day storyline. At first this seemed quite clunky, but as the book continued I grew used to it. I will say however, that for me, I much preferred learning about the events of the past to those of the present and that was the far more interesting aspect of this novel. You learn much less about the (fictional) contemporary characters created and they seem superficial in comparison to Maren and her peers, and probably a bit redundant until the end of the book. Possibly this was deliberate on the authors part, as she has clearly invested a lot of time and research into the case overall and clearly wanted to bring Maren et al back to life- but I cannot help wondering if maybe this novel would have read better purely in Maren’s voice in its entirety or even told in a third person POV during that time period, without the modern slant being incorporated at all.
With a strong mystery and true crime aspect and a wonderfully atmospheric depiction of the bleak Shoal Islands, this was a fantastic book and a story that I quickly became engrossed in. It is not difficult to see why this made the Orange short-list at the time, though regrettably it didn’t win. Though it isn’t my favourite Anita Shreve novel (that honour goes to ‘Fortune’s Rocks’) it is most certainly worth a read for fans of Shreve, Diane Chamberlain or Jodi Picoult.