Reviewed by Sarah Weinman
More and more, debut fiction needs to stand out from the pack -- and assert itself to an audience that all too easily finds other things to occupy the time. At first, Lori Roy seems to be taking a counterintuitive approach with her first novel Bent Road, eschewing flash and dazzle for plainspoken prose and a story that mines past crimes for present consequences.
Don't be fooled by the novel's apparent simplicity: What emerges from the surface is a tale of extraordinary emotional power, one of longstanding pain set against the pulsating drumbeat of social change, a rhythm the Scott family wishes could be ignored but which affects them regardless.
We meet the Scotts -- the nervous, haunted Arthur, his urban-acclimated wife, Celia, and their three children -- in transit, leaving the race riot-torn Detroit of 1967 for the quiet rural Kansas enclave where Arthur was born and raised (and which he left 20 years before, seemingly for good, following the mysterious death of his sister Eve). But the implicit threat of "broken glass, sparkling green and brown shards scattered across Willingham Avenue on a Sunday morning," combined with seemingly innocuous phone calls for eldest daughter Elaine, leads Arthur back to the steep, hilly Bent Road of his childhood. And much to Celia's surprise, "the closer he gets to home, the faster he drives, as if he is suddenly regretting all those years away."
For a time, regrets do seem to fall away as Arthur and his newly arrived family reacquaint themselves with his mother, Reesa, and sister, Ruth, as Roy describes with patience and superior skill. Elaine embraces the rural life (and small-town love), while middle child Daniel appears to grow more comfortable with more traditional hobbies like hunting. But Bent Road is no place for idylls, not when Eve's death remains unsolved according to the law and not the town, when her consensus murderer lives among them, both part of and at a remove from the Scotts, determined to destroy those around him and especially himself.
And idylls have no place whatsoever in the lives of Celia, struggling to carve out her own place in this rural town of choking discomfort; Ruth, who like Julie Jordan in the musical Carousel has stopped wondering if her alcoholic, violence-prone husband is good or bad; and youngest daughter Evie, both drawn to and involuntarily in the orbit of her dead namesake aunt.
It is through Evie most of all that Roy makes her point about inevitability and what lengths families go to -- they even kill -- to protect themselves. When another girl disappears, what could be a tired trope takes on tragic, even mythic proportions in Bent Road. The twin vanishings leave Evie, friendless and subject to the mercy of cruel, taunting classmates, in a particularly vulnerable spot, prey to forces beyond her control and wishing for something far outside the bounds of life. "If she were dead," Evie thinks, "being small wouldn't matter because no one makes fun of a dead person." Being dead means she wouldn't have to miss those who predeceased her or whose fate remains unknown. And being dead means being beyond the point of hurt and suspicion to a point of sweet release.
Where Bent Road excels the most is in juxtaposing a seemingly encapsulated world of rural routine and slow pace against the rushing onslaught of violence. Arthur may wish to protect his family against the rising tide of civil rights, but only opens deeper wounds within his own family by bringing them home. But his choices seem both right and inevitable, and the Scotts as an entire family are real, flawed people, rich with Roy's natural empathy and understanding that worlds may seem real but are, in fact, a cornucopia of inventions, half-truths and outright lies. Bent Road is a long, winding journey, just like its titular street, where murder comes from love, friendship turns to ash and family bonds strengthen only through the worst sort of circumstances. But Roy is in full narrative command, taking her time to point the reader to the next direction, but always certain -- even if we are not -- that what comes next is what must happen, not what we hope or wish would transpire.
Sarah Weinman contributes to the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Maclean's, The National Post and many other print and online publications.
Books mentioned in this post