BENT ROAD is a difficult book to wedge into any particular genre other than "fiction." And that's a good thing. There is a mystery at the heart of it, a bit of romance, and some coming-of-age and coming-to-terms elements, but debut author Lori Roy has created a work that is more of a dark parable than a tale designed for entertainment or amusement. As such, it haunts throughout and long after the final page is read. It is reminiscent, in one sense, of Thomas Wolfe's YOU CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN, though it perhaps contains a rejoinder to that title along the lines of "Oh. Really? Try to leave."
Indeed, it begins with the Scott family --- husband Arthur, wife Celia, daughters Elaine and Evie, and son Daniel --- returning in 1967 to Arthur's home in rural Kansas, the home he fled some 20 years before. The riots in their hometown of Detroit have prompted the move, but the Scotts discover they are trading one set of problems for another.
Little has changed since Arthur left his home on Bent Road following the mysterious and unsolved death of his sister, Eve. Her passing occurred shortly before she was married to Ray, and the locals have cast a suspicious eye on him, even after he married Ruth, Eve and Arthur's sister, in Eve's place. Ray nonetheless has been sinking into an alcoholic moroseness in the intervening period, interrupted only by explosive incidents where his temper has manifested itself with increasingly violent beatings visited upon Ruth. Almost immediately after the Scotts return, however, an incident involving another young girl --- this one gone missing --- awakens the memory of the prior tragedy, and suspicion is cast upon Ray once again. While that is the primary plot that runs through BENT ROAD, there is a great deal of tension percolating under the surfaces of the lives of the family members.
Evie is unable to make friends. Daniel, on the cusp of adulthood, feels himself overshadowed by his father and by Jonathon, Elaine's boyfriend. It is Celia, though, who feels most out of place, who feels a loss of self somewhere between the cosmopolitan setting of Detroit and the uneasy claustrophobia of the country people and their worldview. And, of course, there is her mother-in-law to deal with, who is constantly judging and finding her wanting in the most subtle of ways. Things come to a head when Ray beats Ruth so badly that Arthur intervenes, taking her into the family's home and offering her protection. Arthur's involvement and Ruth's exile is ill-regarded by the townspeople and the local priest, who believe that a woman's place is with her husband even under the worst of circumstances.
Ruth's --- and particularly Arthur's --- defiance brings matters to a head, and more significantly lead to the revelation of secrets that have laid quietly (if not restfully) on the conscience of instigators and victims alike for almost two decades. This uncovering results in a cataclysmic conclusion that demonstrates no one is entirely blameless or guilty for what has occurred in either the past or the present.
Roy travels some of the same terrain that Tana French has explored, but does so from a much different perspective and with her own unique set of characters. The prose reads with the authority of a diary, and one cannot walk away from BENT ROAD without feeling almost certain that the events detailed here occurred somewhere out in the Midwest, at an all-but-invisible crossroads far from the nearest interstate, where people keep to themselves and settle their own problems. Nevertheless, you will want to visit.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 4, 2011