“A novel that combines noir and the gothic in a story about two families entwined in their own unhappiness, with, at its heart, a gruesome and unsolved murder.”
The old farmhouse in upstate New York has seen more than its fair share of tragedy. Many of the locals think that it is cursed. Could they be right?
In the family since 1908, the Hale diary farm now belongs to Calvin, Ella and their three boys. The farm, like many of their ilk, has fallen upon hard times. Calvin takes his frustrations out on his family and is unkind and abusive. At the end of his tether, he takes his long-suffering wife with him in a murder-suicide by gassing them in their bedroom which is above the garage. The three boys are left orphans, and the farm goes into foreclosure. The boys, Eddy, Wade, and Cole are sent into town to live with their uncle. They live not only with the loss of their home and their parents, but also with the stigma of being a ‘Hale’.
“You had to figure out how to go on. That’s all you could do.”
Then, at a ridiculously cheap price, George Clare buys the old farmhouse and two hundred acres of land. He moves there with his beautiful wife Catherine and their sweet little daughter, Franny. George is an academic and his wife a former art restorer. Now a full-time mother to Franny, Catherine does not like this rural life, but does her best to settle.
Shockingly, the reader learns that Catherine has been brutally murdered with an axe while lying in her bed!
Then, through flashbacks, we learn about her life in the house. Although her husband George knew the house’s history, she did not. They hire three local boys to paint the barns and house. George knows that these boys used to live in the house, Catherine does not. Catherine likes these unusual boys. She thinks they are polite, sincere, and ‘broken’. She becomes quite fond of the youngest boy, Cole. The Clare’s hire Cole to babysit Franny on a regular basis.
When we first met George Clare immediately after his wife’s murder, we find him a pitiable widower. Now, through these flashbacks, we find that he is really not a likable character at all. The Clare’s have a loveless marriage. They married only because Catherine fell pregnant with Franny. Now married, Catherine feels trapped – but – “women in Catherine’s family didn’t leave their husbands“. George is unfaithful and dishonest. Moving here to the country he has procured a position at the local college as a art history professor. His position would never have been granted to him if he had not forged his qualifications. When discovered in his deception George says, “I wrote the letter I deserved“.
We come to know their friends and neighbors. The bohemian, childless couple Justine and Bram. Mary, the real estate agent and her policeman husband, Travis. We also come to know George’s coworkers at the college, and his young and damaged mistress, Willis.
We learn that Catherine felt uneasy in the house. A house where she felt chilled in some rooms. A house where she felt an oppressive gloom even when the sun is shining. Franny too seemed aware of the house’s creepiness. There is one scene where Catherine is doing dishes and looks up to the window and sees another woman’s reflection. Then she finds rings on the windowsill that weren’t there before. As if the other woman had taken them off to do the dishes…
Catherine develops a kind of relationship with the dead Ella. “They were a morbid pair – one dead, one alive. Both stuck.”
Another vivid scene that I won’t forget is when the three Hale boys learn of Catherine’s murder. They were all very fond of her and the three climb the ridge overlooking their old house. Eddy plays ‘Taps‘ on his trumpet in her honor.
Exceptional imagery and great characterization are evident in this novel. We come to know and care for the characters – in particular Catherine Clare and Cole Hale.
George Clare? … not so much. He is handsome, narcissistic, false, and sociopathic.
“Bad things could add up in a life, he thought.
They could slowly, slowly disfigure you.”
The title is referenced by way of connection to a painting: “the moment light and dark and land and sky were perfectly balanced, what Inness would call an ideal composition, a vague and conniving frontier where, as the artist put it, all things cease to appear.”
This literary thriller is a slow burn, but despite its 400 pages, it kept me interested and invested in the outcome throughout. Although the novel contains ghostly references it is not really a ‘ghost story’ per se. It is a murder mystery with no mystery, only unsettling and uneasy suspicions. The ending was both satisfactory and unsatisfactory. Don’t understand what I mean? I guess you’ll have to read it for yourself.
My digital copy of this novel was provided to me by Knopf via Edelweiss.
Elizabeth Brundage graduated from Hampshire College, attended the NYU film school, was a screenwriting fellow at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, and received an MFA as well as a James Michener Award from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She has taught at a variety of colleges and universities, most recently at Skidmore College, where she was visiting writer-in-residence. She lives near Albany in upstate New York.