A New Series: One Minute Reviews of
Books by Vermont Authors
Laura's column "One Minute Reviews" has appeared bi-weekly in Wilmington, Vermont's Deerfield Valley News since 2015. In April 2018, she found that no Vermont periodical consistently reviews all commercially published fiction and non-fiction by Vermont authors, so she started a series to fill that void. Published reviews from that series and some earlier reviews of local authors are listed with links to a scan of the printed copy. Reviews still in queue are listed without links until they appear in print.
Deerfield Valley News, 11/1/2018
Violence and Suffering in Uganda and Vermont
Melanie Finn, The Underneath. Two Dollar Radio, 2018.
Kay Ward was once an intrepid international journalist in Uganda, writing a story about the atrocities of General Christmas and his child soldiers. Now she is the mother of two children and the wife of documentary filmmaker Michael. Usually based in London, they have rented an old farmhouse in Vermont in hopes that a rural retreat will repair their failing marriage. There seems little hope of that: Kay, deeply resentful about the diminution marriage and motherhood have thrust upon her, is introduced as she fantasizes about hitting Michael from behind with the hammer she is holding. Only hours later, Michael is called to Africa when a colleague becomes sick. Left alone with her certainty that he's really meeting a lover and her mixed feelings about her children, Kay is distracted by the sense that something terrible has happened in the house they are renting. She begins by trying to contact the owners, only to find that nobody will tell her where they are. Her search brings her to the other major character in the book, Ben, a local who has survived an abusive background and become a logger, a heroin smuggler, and (unexpectedly) the rescuer of five- year-old Jake, a child so abused and neglected that he no longer speaks. As Kay's search leads her closer to her landlord's hidden secrets, it becomes as dangerous as any investigation she undertook it Africa, not only because of what she finds in Vermont but because of the anger she finds in herself.
Interspersed with the narrative that follows Kay's Vermont investigations are passages in italics from her former life as a tough investigative reporter in war-torn Uganda. The passages serve a double function: as flashbacks, they follow Kay's memories of her former life as she copes with her maternal duties as chauffeur, unappreciated cook, and house cleaner; thematically, they implicitly compare the cruelty, abuse and poverty in opioid-touched Vermont with the destitution, sadism, and corruption as the war crimes in Uganda. The grim thematic comparison is voiced in Kay's ambiguous reflection, “It’s an individual choice – one of the few we genuinely have – whether or not you turn away, or if or how you incorporate the suffering and violence of others, often others who are far away, into your own life.”
Violence is thus at the center of this literary thriller, though not at the same level throughout.
Kay's swearing at her daughter and her daughter's histrionic phone call to Michael to come get them) are merely unfortunate family squabbles; the abuse Ben, his best friend, and little Jake have endured is as horrific as anything in Uganda. There is, however, a flip side. Ben wishes to adopt Jake to give him the love he never had as a child, and he is ironically sensitive to the landscape he knows he is destroying. Of the characters in the book, he is the most interesting, both personally and ethically. Kay, too, has a soft side under her resentments. The book ends with a half-promise of happiness for both of them that some readers will welcome. But others may find it forced, perhaps demanded by an editor who shrank from publishing even a very fine book that contains a portrait of evil as unshrinking as this one.