On the same November day in 1967, two women disappear from Fraser Arm, B.C. One of them, Bette Parsons, leaves behind her husband Wally and their five children: Geordie, Alan, Ambrose, Trevor, and Lulu. Lulu, the youngest child and only daughter, discovers a note written by her mother but she tells no one about it. Lacking her mother’s supervision, Lulu is befriended by Aloysius McFee, the husband of the other woman who disappeared. At the age of 18, Lulu leaves her hometown and distances herself from her family. Forty years after her mother’s disappearance, she learns that someone else in her family has kept a secret, one for which “some serious atoning” is required.
This book has several memorable characters. One is the eldest Parson child, Geordie, who is 20 when his mother disappears. He has an intellectual disability but he knows what is most important in life. His loving and cheerful nature inspires the reader to hope that Geordie’s optimism will be rewarded. Another unforgettable character is Doris Tenpenny whose perspective, along with Lulu’s, is given throughout. She is a mute who communicates only through written notes. She closely observes the human and natural world around her and becomes a wise woman.
The book is about secrets and their consequences; because of secrets, people are hurt “to the very marrow of our bones.” In the novel’s opening, we learn one of Lulu’s secrets: the content of a note from her mother. Lulu mentions that until her mother left, “None of us knew about pain. Not the kind that leaves you shattered and speechless.” Though that is not her intention, Lulu’s keeping the note a secret just increases the pain. And that is not the only secret she keeps throughout much of her life. And she is not the only one who has secrets which impact the lives of many others. Because people know Doris cannot easily tell others their secrets, they confide in her; she does indeed keep their secrets, but she also keeps one of her own which she realizes could have saved others from suffering. The conclusion is that “Secrets weigh” and leave people with “too much baggage on the flight [through life].” So much is lost because of secrets. In one case, Lulu suspects a secret “ruined” a person: “In the end, I thought, it had killed him.”
The reader will not leave the book unscathed. At times I was incredibly angry at people’s behaviour and choices though I could also empathize because their choices were made for very understandable reasons; people who are hurt or angry or ashamed or truly desperate do not always make the best decisions. (There is only one character whose behaviour I could not excuse, though that individual does perhaps try to atone in the end.) As expected, sections of the novel are incredibly sad, though there are also comic scenes. And some sections left me squirming in discomfort.
Not all of the reader’s questions are answered by the end. There are some things that one can only speculate about. Though some may disagree, I think the ending is perfect, though it does leave room for a sequel. At times, I wished the point of view of another character were given. A companion novel giving the viewpoint of Wally or Aloysius would be interesting.
Should the author choose to write a sequel or parallel novel, I would definitely read it. On an emotional level, this one got into the very marrow of my bones.
Note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.