“On a Tuesday in May, in her thirty-seventh year, Rachel shot her husband dead.” This is the line that begins the brief prologue to Since We Fell, a tour de force from Dennis Lehane which reminds is above all about what a talented writer he is. Like Mystic River, it is a novel about emotions. But what makes it so remarkable is the way it is told, in three sections, each with its own focus and its own style, the latter serving to emphasize the former.
The first, titled ‘Rachel In The Mirror’, could easily stand alone as a novella in a mainstream literary magazine. It covers the story of Rachel Childs, raised alone by her psychology-professor mother who authored a best-selling self-help book called The Staircase, which referred to the stages any relationship goes through, and which Elizabeth tells Rachel was a piece of ’emotionally adolescent snake-oil’. She barely remembers her father, who left the family when she was young, but she recalls her mother’s threat as he walked away: “If you leave I will expunge you.” Her mother gave Rachel little information about her father, but she becomes determined to track him down, and after Elizabeth’s death in a car crash, that determination becomes an obsession. The story of her quest is interwoven with her experience as a successful TV reporter in Boston, married to a successful producer, and on the verge of network stardom. She is sent to cover an earthquake in Haiti, and in the chaos that follows the disaster, she finds it impossible to ‘report’ the positive, and her career and marriage both crash. Like the quest for her father, it’s a tale of disappointment, and a revelation about the nature of life and life’s pain. It is a perfectly done, self-contained story, but one that needs to be remembered as the tale unfolds. It also contains one of Lehane’s aphoristic moments, like the Irish whiskey scene in The Drop, when a character explains “the only people who as questions like ‘did he want to be something besides a bartender?’ are people who can become whoever they want. The rest of us are just Americans.”
When the second section, ‘Brian’, opens, Rachel bumps into the private detective she had originally hired in Western Massachusetts to search for her father at the faculties of universities in the area. Brian is now back in charge of his family’s lumber business in Canada, and he is the stable figure Rachel needs, as she’s now suffering from an inability to face the world. But all, as they say, is not what it seems, and Brian is living a double life, built on a structure of lies. Were this the opening of the novel a shrewd marketing type might have called it The Girl On The Staircase, because it fits into that modern genre of woman battling to find the truth behind an ominous menace. Lehane is again pitch-perfect: his writing builds that menace slowly, and it concludes with the scene that opened the prologue.
The third section deals with the aftermath of the shooting, as Rachel tries to piece together the mysteries that have gone before. It’s titled ‘Rachel In The World’, which reflects the change as she is forced to act. And it’s written in the kind of action prose we’ve seen from Lehane in his last few novels, quick moving, event-driven, and pushing toward a conclusion that at first glance, while legitimate and consistent, might strike some as being somewhat mechanical. Until one stops to think about what has gone before and what has been said to Rachel and thought by Rachel, and presented to Rachel. And here is where this brilliant novel transcends the concept of psychological thriller. Because what it is about, recall, is the nature of living, and how we cope with its pain. And what we do, Lehane is telling us, is play roles, play con games, by which we fool others and ourselves about what we are inside. From her mother’s book and tales to the hitman playing injured father, from Rachel indoors or inside herself to Rachel out in the world as wife or as avenger, we learn to accept the darkness outside, the dirt beneath. Because, as we learn, we do not own life, we rent it.
Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane
Little, Brown £18.99 ISBN 9781408708330
This review appeared first at Michael Carlson’s Irresistible Targets (http://irresistibletargets.blogspot.com)