Saturday 8 February 2020

Quiet Dell

Before I left Wellington, I came across yet one more book that was unknown to me, despite my admiration for the author. It was Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips, whose brilliant first novel Machine Dreams (1984) I found intensely moving on first reading and on several subsequent rereadings. Quiet Dell was published, unnoticed by me, in 2013, and there it was, in this bookshop in Wellington, as if by appointment. As it manifested itself in the form of a large, heavy hardback – and at full New Zealand price – I didn't buy it there and then, but waited till I got back to England and bought the paperback edition online.  Ever since then I have, as they say, had my nose buried in it (a nose that takes some burying) and have found it hard to tear myself away, let alone get on with any other reading.
 Quiet Dell (as all the world but me might know; it seems to have attracted a lot of attention, rave reviews and accolades on publication) is a gripping imaginative re-creation of a real-life murder case from 1931 – the murder of a widow and her three children by a psychopathic con man. The dedication page reads 'for Annabel Eicher' – Annabel, the youngest of the three murdered children, an imaginative, dreamy and talented child. It is in her voice that the novel begins, and her voice and presence recur from time to time, colouring and heightening the atmosphere of the novel. Phillips imaginatively enters the world of the Eicher children, their mother and grandmother and the surrogate uncle/father figure who rooms with them, rounding out their characters until we know and care about them all. As a result, when mother and children go, all unknowing, to meet their terrible end, the effect is heartbreaking.
 Equally convincingly Phillips fleshes out the characters who will propel the narrative after the grisly deed is done, giving them depth and inner lives – notably the woman journalist determined to understand what happened, and the local banker who knew the family and is equally determined to get to the truth and ensure that at least the killer faces justice. Documentary elements – photographs, press reports, verbatim statements – enhance the verisimilitude, but there is really no need. This is no ordinary true-crime fictionalisation but an utterly compelling journey into darkness – a darkness in which, I trust, a light is somewhere shining. And so I read on...

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