The most unsettling, gut-wrenching, and effective whodunits consistently refuse a reader full access to the crux of the mystery, bypassing clues for character, and avoiding a clear sense of motive for a hazy, suggestive atmosphere rife with both seamy secrets and veiled confessions. Who needs Colonel Mustard in the library with the lead pipe when you’ve got the sail-shaped town of Garner, New Hampshire, year 1925, complete with some two hundred of its complex, stoic, intensely back-storied citizens?
As an opening to her first novel, Kristin Allio opts for a quietly stunning revelation, old-fashioned and filmic at once, wherein the body of young Frances Giddens is discovered by the town’s postman in a local brook. Time slows and billows at the discovery; it is unclear for a few moments if the woman is dead or merely fallen, the blood trailing from her body or a hook-torn fish. If Garner, the town, is the soul of this mystery, then Frances is its spirit. Somewhat otherworldly and often described as a creature of the forest with “the cheekbones of a butterfly and the mouth of a tidy cat” and a laugh both “green” and “silver,” she belongs almost exclusively to the town’s hidden pathways and shadowed spaces, even as she nimbly transcends them.
Willard Heald, the aforementioned mail carrier who narrates the first of five parts in the novel, is not only the town’s deliverer of tidings, but also its collector of events past and present. A “sorrowful busybody” with “ears made of envelopes,” he makes it his business to record the townspeople’s comings and goings in the interest of history, a “hobby” which fully inhabits and shapes his psyche.
Generically less novel than long scrapbook-poem, this first section is a patchwork—of poetic musings, town-meeting transcripts, dream sequences, lists of native plants, local lore and aphoristic proclamations—which successfully cobbles a sense of the civil ordinances and Puritanical strictures underpinning the town’s mores. At the very moment Willard’s account begins to border on the frustratingly cryptic, Allio changes course, shepherding us into the more ordered head of Malin Nillsen, a cosmopolitan New York socialite and summer boarder at the Giddens’ farm, who leaves Garner before the murder occurs. Unlike Willard, Malin speaks in the types of conversational “whips and circles” that do little to impress her deeply practical hosts, or Frances herself. Garner natives’ imperviousness to the petty vagaries and witticisms of city living are incredibly attractive to Malin, who soon resolves to befriend the tight-lipped Frances. In the remaining sections, Allio lingers with a number of the town’s cast members, unearthing their discreet aspirations and sacrifices with the same stilted, quaint diction and pile-ups of imagery she employs throughout the novel.
Garner is neither a brisk nor a strictly satisfying read, but it evokes with an ominous charm a particular place and time that, for all its emphasis on preservation, seems to hover somewhere beyond or outside of history. Because this imaginative kindling springs so easily from the language’s sleek metaphors and lyrical bustle and lull, I often found myself enthralled in a near-hallucinogenic manner by Allio’s prose. It is rare to feel so truly transported by a work of fiction. Therefore, at the risk of alliterative (and accolade) excess, I dub Garner a masterly, multi-voiced, mood-altering mystery—and a debut so wise, certain, and cleverly empathetic as to seem the work of a sure-footed pro.