What, if anything, consoles you in your darkest hour? The human capacity to believe—to ascribe purpose to deity or destiny—in the face of evil and deepest loss is the thread that binds Jane Bradley’s debut novel, You Believers.
One young woman believes she can survive anything if she just stays positive.
Another believes a voice from the dead saved her life.
A man believes he is untouchable, a fearless devil with a right and a destiny to control others.
A formerly devout mother shakily returns to Christian faith when her daughter goes missing.
A search and rescue worker who experiences the best and worst of humanity believes in moving forward anyway, one day at a time.
The story begins on a summer day when Katy Connor goes out shopping and never returns. People go missing every day, says the narrator, Shelby Waters:
It happens like that. You think you’re going home. And some picture of your face ends up on a grainy black-and-white flyer tacked to a phone pole. Your image fades in sunlight. The thin paper sign of you tatters, fluttering in the breeze. Strangers pass by, study your face for something familiar, think maybe they’ve seen you somewhere. But they haven’t. You are a stranger. You are lost.
Shelby knows. She faced that personal loss years ago and now faces it daily on her clients’ behalf. She’s the hardscrabble private detective you call “when you’ve got nothing left but worry and waiting for the phone to ring.” When Katy Connor goes missing and the police believe she’s run off with a drug-dealer boyfriend, Katy’s fiancé Billy and mother Livy turn to Shelby to take up the search.
Despite their shared loss, Billy and Livy cannot grieve and wait together. As the empty weeks stretch on, Livy returns to the Bible verses that used to sustain her, telling herself to focus on the positive, to have faith, to pray harder, convinced God will reward her sacrifices. Billy, meanwhile, drinks himself under the table, lashing out at Livy and his friends for their stiff politeness, their ungrounded positivity, their false assurances.
They were saying something about time. Oh, God, Livy was saying something about in the Lord’s own time. She was trying to climb back into her religion, like religion was a tree you could climb into to keep you safe from a flood. Billy couldn’t stand any more of anyone’s words that kept trying to say everything was going to be all right.
Shelby does what she can to support both of them without taking her eyes off the end game: finding Katy’s body. She, too, has her own way of facing the worst. She trusts her gut. She puts one foot in front of the other. She stocks her truck with Valium, blankets, shovels. In one emotional scene, when Livy asks her if she believes in anything, she replies, “I believe in a lot of things.”
“Like the world of the living.”
“That’s a start,” she said. “No afterlife?”
“I believe in the living and the dead.”
“Do you believe in spirits? Is that why you do this, to put lost souls to rest?”
“I do what I do to put the living to rest.”
So Shelby continues her search, interviewing, visiting Katy’s favorite places, following the cadaver dogs through the woods. There’s no need for a spoiler alert here. The reader knows from the first page that Katy will not be coming home, yet Bradley maintains a taut suspense and an increasing pace in her slow revelation of details. She also builds strong empathy for her broken characters, including those that have caused so much devastation to others. The diversity and complexities of their responses to loss are the emotional engine driving the story forward.
So whose beliefs are “right”? In the end, Bradley’s characters survive not because of the substance of their faith, but simply because of its existence. Livy’s prayers do not bring her daughter back. Shelby’s relentless search and rescue work doesn’t end her own suffering. But each person finds something to commit to, and that commitment gives them a reason to go on surviving.
You Believers is an intensely quiet thriller that dignifies the human spirit even as it reveals the darkest impulses and contradictions of the soul.
This is the stage of winter when I deeply experience the doldrums, waiting for the daffodils to do a little more than just peek out their heads. Happily, there is no shortage of books to distract me from the gray skies.
In the last few weeks, I’ve read a book that’s been on my list for a long time, Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book, and a new release, Eowyn Ivey’s debut The Snow Child. The latter admittedly was less helpful in ignoring winter, but it was a lovely story all the same. I’m working on reviews of both.
I also read How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life, by Mameve Medwed, which I’d picked up in a library book sale. I can’t remember how that one first came to my attention, and I wish I could, because it wasn’t at all what I expected. Somehow I went into it thinking it was rather literary; my mistake. It did get me through an unpleasant session in the dentist’s chair, though!
Now I’m about a quarter of the way into Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, another title that’s been on my list way too long. None of the characters have captured me yet, but it seems to have epic ambitions so I am reserving judgment to see how much it fulfills that promise. And tomorrow I’m heading to the library to pick up my latest reserve notification, Ellis Avery’s second novel, The Last Nude.
What are you reading in this final stretch of winter?
And the publisher is kindly offering an introductory price of $2 per volume, making the whole set just $10. Our editor says the price is good for about a week, so if you’ve been waiting for the ebooks, now’s the time. Enjoy!
Peril and Peace: Chronicles of the Ancient Church (Kindle)
Monks and Mystics: Chronicles of the Medieval Church (Kindle)
Courage and Conviction: Chronicles of the Reformation Church (Kindle)
Hearts and Hands: Chronicles of the Awakening Church (Kindle)
Rescue and Redeem: Chronicles of the Modern Church (Kindle)
Once a Spy is Keith Thomson’s debut thriller. I wanted to love it if only for the premise: a CIA agent on medical leave, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, is pursued by the company, who fears he will compromise (or may have already) national secrets as a result of his condition. It falls to his estranged son, a frustrated gambler who believes his father is nothing more than a simple appliance salesman, to save him from getting scrubbed out by the very men he trained. The plot is creative and the narrative well-paced. But Thomson appears to have taken a few too many writing pointers from Dan Brown. The dialogue is peppered with glib quips and cliches to rival a Bond film. Scenes are over-described with details that characters running for their lives would never notice. Fight sequences include phrases like “most likely crushing his skull” and “he was almost certainly done for.”
Once a Spy is no literary masterpiece, but it is a page-turner—and won’t require much fiddling to be translated into a blockbuster screenplay, already in the works. The sequel, Twice a Spy, came out last year—but I think I’ll wait for the movie.
George Orwell on the motives for and influences on writing:
…I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in—at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own—but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never complete escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, or in some perverse mood: bit if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write.
He goes on to list four “great motives” for writing:
1) Sheer egoism: “Desire to be clever…to be remembered after death…determined to live their own lives to the end.”
2) Aesthetic enthusiasm: “Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement.”
3) Historical impulse: “Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”
4) Political purpose: “Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society they should strive after.
From Why I Write, re-published most recently in Penguin’s Great Ideas series.