In one scene of Sheri Joseph’s latest novel, Lark follows her older brother Caleb along a path in the Cloud Forest of Costa Rica. Caleb has recently returned from what Lark thinks of as the Gone, abducted three years ago by a pedophile ring and then, against all possible odds, having been reunited with his family. Now, although he is only a short distance ahead of her, the mists hang so heavy between them, that sometimes he is a milky ghost and sometimes he disappears from view altogether.
This is a beautiful book. In some ways it reminds me of certain Joyce Carol Oates stories that study the effects of violent crime on family dynamics. In this case, Caleb’s return almost immediately sunders his family, and his mother Marlene spends most of the novel trying to bridge the emotional divide separating her from the son she no longer knows. Caleb, indeed, barely knows himself; he still thinks of himself as “Nicky,” the alter ego given him by the man who rescued him from his first abductors and became his “father” rather than returning him to his family.
Other reviews refer to this book as a “thriller,” which seems an odd misnomer to me, although it does have some of the pleasing tropes of traditional crime fiction, including a bit of good old-fashioned code cracking – but it’s bound to discomfort readers who expect a more facile treatment of difficult subject matter. In particular is the loyalty and even love Caleb still feels for Jolly – what a shudder that clown-like name provokes! – the man he still views as, and who in many ways was, his savior. Joseph’s nuanced writing will not let us dismiss this as Helsinki Syndrome and thereby put it away in a convenient box and forget about it, but forces us to confront our understanding of love, for as much as we don’t want to admit it, we have to consider the disturbing idea that Jolly also loves Caleb.
This is why I think the designation thriller is mistaken. A thriller offers a vicarious experience of an extreme situation that, thankfully, most of us will never face, whereas Joseph retrieves her characters from the Gone in order to have them face what is true for all of us anyway, but which is too disturbing to dwell on except in flashes of insight or while under the spell of a masterful author: that just because a person is familiar does not make him any less a mystery, just that the mystery itself becomes familiar; that we do not know even ourselves; and that our world is bounded by ghosts and shadows.
We all live in the Cloud Forest.