Tuesday, March 22, 2016

ALL THINGS CEASE TO APPEAR :: Elizabeth Brundage

We wait. We are patient. We wait for news. We wait to be told. The wind is trying to tell us. The trees shift. It is the end of something; we can sense it. Soon we will know.

I waited. I was patient. I waited to be told. I finished. I'm still not sure what this book was or what it was trying to be. Ghost story? Murder mystery? Tale of psychological suspense? A study of character and marriage? Psychopath case study? It had elements of each, but none sufficiently for me to connect with it. There were some elements I loved and some I strongly disliked, most fell somewhere in between. In the end, the trees and the wind didn't clear up enough to make me love it.

New York, 1979. George Clare shows up on his neighbors' doorstep, cradling his young daughter in his arms. It seems he returned home from work to find his young wife murdered in their bedroom.

The Clares had been living on "the Hale farm" for only a short time, moving to the small town of Chosen for George's job at a local college. The farm had been in the Hale family for generations when tragedy struck and the property foreclosed, sending the three young Hale boys to live with their uncle.

There were whispers about the Hale farm and whether it was cursed. No one wanted it until George Clare bought it for his family, without telling his wife Catherine of its history.

As the investigation into Catherine's death proceeds, flashbacks reveal the true nature of George and Catherine, their marriage, what happened to the Hale boys, and who might have been responsible for Catherine's demise. The cake is then iced with hints of the paranormal and plenty of arguing about art history and theory.

Parts of All Things Cease to Appear were compelling. As a study of George and Catherine's marriage and George as a sociopath, it was often really well done. Many of the characters and relationships were richly drawn and sucked me in, particularly those dealing with the Hale boys; both their relationships with each other and, particularly, with Catherine.

On the other hand, the story felt overrun with characters and story arcs in an attempt to build...something I'm not sure of. Tension? Evidence that George was a narcissistic shit rooster? Some of the arcs felt so mired in detail (many leading nowhere, at least nowhere of any import that I could fathom) that when they finally came around to having relevance to the main plot I was tired of them. I didn't need to know the entire history of George and Catherine's friends, or all of George's antics at work, in order for those things to have meaning. Less is sometimes more, and in this case, I wanted less to be able to feel more. (Or maybe I just missed the point, it would not be the first time.)

Brundage's writing is not really at issue, I found many of her passages, particularly the shorter ones, painted great pictures; enough so that I think it amplified my frustration with the extraneous:

She had a tight mouth, like she was holding pins between her lips.

He had a face like a mess of old wires.

The housekeeper was a black lady with tough eggplant skin, wrangling the hose of the vacuum like an alligator wrestler.

The books sat on their shelves like spectators and smelled of all the dirty hands that had turned their pages. The regulars sat in the green leather chairs, geezers with sharp red faces, or ladies who looked like teachers, sourpusses, Eugene called them, snapping their pages, pursing their lips.

The murder investigation was another problem altogether. I'm not sure if it was meant to be inept or just a means to get to one of the final reveals, but it seemed like the latter, which felt a little cheaty. I feel like I'm being hard on this book and that's because it was in many ways compelling, which made it all the more frustrating. The writing was strong and really lovely in parts. I warmed and bought into many of the characters, particularly Cole and Catherine. It simply felt like it had too many spoons in the soup and was too amorphous for me to invest in fully.  

STREET SENSE: If you are looking for a well-done tale of psychopathy and don't mind some meandering, this is in your wheelhouse. If you're looking for a ghost story or a real whodunnit, it's not. Well written with some truly nice moments, it suffers from trying to be too many things.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  They took turns. The hood jutting up in a heap of triangles. The windshield splintered. His brothers beat that car so hard Cole almost felt sorry for it. He watched and cried. Tears rolled down his cheeks into his mouth and tasted of dirt. It was their dirt. It was their father's and their grandpa's dirt and all the men who had come before who were ghosts now and guarded the land in their church suits and stocking feet, their pockets full of worms.

COVER NERD SAYS:  I really like this cover, it's what first attracted me to the book along with the title, but it may be a tad misleading. To me it reads of spookiness and a bit of the unreal, something gothic in nature. While there were overtones of a ghost story here, I would never classify this book as such, or even as a story with that theme. The cover art does fit the story in other ways, the psycho ways that spoke to me, and overall it's a pleasing and mysterious aesthetic.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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