SECRETS OF EDEN by Chris Bohjalian

Book Quote:

“Most individuals on this planet have a religion they approach with some degree of earnestness,” I said. “And what is a religion but a belief in the unseen and a faith in the impossible? Remember what Jesus says in Mark? ‘For all things are possible with God,’ Magic is about the endless ways in this world that the impossible becomes possible–just like religion. Religion, in essence, is ritualized magic.”

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns (MAR 15, 2010)

There are no Secrets of Eden, at least not by the time you finish the last sentence of this page-turner of a novel. In all likelihood, you will probably rush to discover them all, they are presented so deftly constructed and poised.

Stephen Drew is a minister in the small Vermont town of Haverill. He is loved by his congregation, and performs his ministerial duties with grace and diligence. The novel opens as the minister is performing an outside, pond-dunking, baptism on a congregant, Alice Hayward. As he lifts her arching back out of the water she utters one word: “There.” “I’d nodded,when Alice had said it,” relates minister Drew, in the first person account that kicks off the novel. “She was thinking of John, and of Christ’s three words at the end of his torment on the cross; she was imagining that precise moment when he bows his head and gives up his spirit.” And then the chapter closes, “It is finished, said Christ. There. And Alice Hayward was ready to die.”

And die she did. That night, in an apparent murder-suicide, at the hands of her abusive husband George. But perhaps everything is not what it seems.

The story is told in four voices, the first being that of Minister Drew. He relates the story of the baptism, and the haunting word There, at the end of it. But more to the point, he relates his self anger and frustration at not being more insightful and protective of his parishioner, Alice. He knew her husband beat her. He should of been all those things, should have been looking out for her–he should have been the good minister watching over his flock. But his insight into Alice and what she was suffering at home was deeper and more complex. He was also her lover. (This is not a spoiler. Drew tells us just a few pages into the narrative.)

Bohjalian sets himself the task of exploring abuse in a work of contemporary suspense and mystery. Women get beat, some are killed. How does that happen? Particularly, how does it happen when the plight of the victim is known to some in the community and to her family (Alice has a fifteen-year old daughter, Katie)? One way it happens is when those who know do nothing. And that is the context in which Stephen Drew moves. He knew, and he illicitly loved Alice, yet did nothing to protect her. As a consequence, he comes off as diffident, if not haughty. Or, to a greater extreme, in the word of deputy state’s attorney, Catherine Benincasa, as a “dirtball.”

Catherine Benincasa’s is the second voice we encounter. Her opinion of Drew by this point is well founded. She finds him repellant, a parasite feeding on the innocence of the meek, a man exploiting his power for sexual gain. She pursues the theory that Drew, discovering his dead former-lover Alice, takes justice into his own hands and kills George, who is drunk and passed out. He sets the murder up as a suicide. It sounds plausible, the evidence does not contradict the theory, and oddly, Stephen Drew does not do a lot to help himself convince her otherwise. In fact, to the contrary. Minister Drew turns in his sacred clothes and hi-tails it out of town, pronto. Prosecutor Benincasa thinks he sends off a “serial-killer vibe” and wonders if perhaps he killed them both. But evidence is lacking and the Benincasa narration ends up seeming more like a dead-end down an alley than an illumination.

Thrown into this mix is the third voice in the narration, that of Heather Laurent, best-selling new-age author of books on all things angelic–or, as she says, “Angels. Auras. The quality of vibrations we emit and how they affect our relationship with the divine.” Laurent, herself a victim of domestic crime–her mother died at the hands of her father, who then hung himself–finds opportunity for healing in the tragedy and enters the scene as a concerned bystander. She arrives from New York hoping to bring healing and understanding to the residents of the small town, it’s once-spiritual leader, Minister Drew, but most of all to Katie Hayward, the now orphaned child of Alice and George. Heather and Stephen Drew become mixed up romantically, a fact that sets prosecutor Benincasa salivating.

The novel ends with the adolescent voice of Katie Hayword. The last secrets of Eden are revealed with her narration and it would be unwise for me to reveal much of Katie’s musings. I did find her voice to be awkward at times, sounding more like a middle-aged male author trying to sound adolescent, principally, like, by throwing in gratuitous likes and you knows. (“Once Mom explained it to me, I chilled, but I gather it was pretty gnarly there for a couple of minutes.”)

I think it must be difficult to address current social concerns, like domestic violence, using the vehicle of modern popular fiction. I commend Bohjalian’s effort. Any dialogue to raise awareness of the challenges facing the victims of such crimes, to better understand how such actions even occur in a community of concerned individuals, is to be commended. To successfully wrestle with such topics in the framework of a suspenseful mystery is quite a high-wire act. Bohjalian succeeds on all accounts.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 154 readers
PUBLISHER: Shaye Areheart Books; First Edition (February 2, 2010)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Chris Bohjalian
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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March 15, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Mystery/Suspense, Reading Guide

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