Lisa Unger made a name for herself by writing exciting, deftly plotted thrillers such as BEAUTIFUL LIES and SLIVER OF TRUTH. But with her fifth novel, FRAGILE, her writing shifted in a somewhat different direction --- still thrilling, to be sure, but at the pace of a slow burn rather than a quick, hot fire. In FRAGILE, Unger seemed as concerned with drawing out family and small town dynamics as she was with keeping readers on the edge of their seats. The result was a more sophisticated work of fiction, one that seemed to be headed in exciting new directions for this already accomplished author.
"Reading DARKNESS, MY OLD FRIEND feels a bit like moving to a small town such as The Hollows. First you get to know the locals, slowly but surely, and then once you're familiar, you start to notice the oddities and peculiarities of the place, wondering what secrets it's hiding."
Now, in DARKNESS, MY OLD FRIEND, Unger returns to the small town setting --- and to many of the characters --- she introduced in FRAGILE, for a further exploration of the ways in which history haunts the present.
The Hollows is a place with plenty of history. But newcomer Willow hardly cares about that most of the time. A recent transplant from New York City, Willow can't quite understand the attraction of the place for her mother, a writer. "She tended to sulk when her mother started going on and on about The Hollows, how pretty, how quaint, how close to nature she felt, how clean the air."
All Willow knows is that the kids at her new high school in The Hollows view individuality as freakishness and that cell phone reception is spotty at best. There isn't even a Starbucks, for Pete's sake! Even Willow's mom, who values the effects The Hollows's serenity has on her writing, grudgingly admits that it's a little disconcerting when the locals already seem to know everything about newcomers just weeks after their arrival. To Willow, there's something a bit creepy about The Hollows, especially when a routine walk in the woods turns into a nightmare when she sees a man engaged in some very suspicious behavior.
Jones Cooper and his wife, Maggie, are hardly newcomers; they both grew up in The Hollows and have made it their home nearly their entire lives (the two were at the center of FRAGILE). At the beginning of the novel, Jones has been pushed off the police force and into retirement; the therapy sessions Maggie insists he attend to deal with his troubled memories seem to be doing him no good, and he's restless. Doing odd jobs for neighbors keeps his hands occupied, but his brain still reels over the events of his past, and nightmares disturb his sleep at night. When a local woman asks him to do some private investigation work, to track down the location of a missing woman, Jones leaps at the opportunity. But will his research into this case dredge up more haunting memories of that other case from his past? And what about that psychic who has her own troubling visions of Jones in danger?
Reading DARKNESS, MY OLD FRIEND feels a bit like moving to a small town such as The Hollows. First you get to know the locals, slowly but surely, and then once you're familiar, you start to notice the oddities and peculiarities of the place, wondering what secrets it's hiding. The book might not be explosive or edgy, especially not at first, but it does steadily build suspense in a way that might be even more effective.
Readers would be well advised to pick up FRAGILE first, as its events and characters play important roles in this new story. Together, the novels would make an ideal double feature for a lazy summer weekend of reading.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 9, 2011