Yates’s previous book, “Black Chalk,” had a delicious premise: an escalating game of dare over the years among friends who meet at Oxford. But it didn’t, in the end, prove as thrilling as it might have. This one is more sophisticated, starting from the fully realized stories the characters are awarded in the service of an elegant narrative.
When we catch up with him later, Patrick appears to be suffering the most of the three. (His narrative appears as a kind of first-person journal addressed to his psychiatrist, though it’s clear he’s writing for himself.) Laid off from a bank, he fills his days stalking his former boss, cooking intricate meals and working on an elaborate website devoted to Red Moose Barn, the restaurant he dreams of opening.
Though he ended up saving Hannah’s life all those years ago, he has never told her the full story: where he was during the shooting and what kept him from intervening. When he learns, years after the fact, that Hannah did not see him at the scene and is unaware of his complicity, the burden is more than he can bear.
“This revelation has become the monstrous secret that paces the perimeter of our marriage, like something that prowls in the shadows, a dangerous creature awaiting its moment, the right time to strike,” he says. “To have kept the truth to myself for so long feels like a crime in itself.”
If Patrick feels like both criminal and victim, punishing himself with his secret culpability, Hannah appears to be doing just fine, thanks. A crime reporter at a Daily News-style tabloid, she works out of the Shack — the reporters’ row of offices at Police Headquarters in Lower Manhattan — covering grisly murders and trading banter with a seen-it-all central-casting cop. She’s at work on a true-crime story about her girlhood experience, which, we realize, forms the book’s meta-narrative.
“Just as with my favorite book, ‘In Cold Blood,’” she writes, “this story you’re reading once started out as a perfectly ordinary, everyday tale. Until, very suddenly, it wasn’t.”
Into this intriguing setup comes something even better: a message on Patrick’s website from someone identifying himself as a fan with a business proposition. Who this turns out to be, what his proposal is, and the intricate pattern of misunderstandings, hopes and delusions that connects him to Patrick and Hannah — that’s what we gradually discover.
But along the way we learn about the past, and what drew Patrick, Hannah and Matthew to one another back in the rural New York community where they grew up. All of them — Hannah, rich from her family’s cement fortune; Patrick, the fallen-from-grace son of a local politician; and Matthew, who has a surprisingly soulful sensibility despite his father’s abuse and his reputation as a delinquent — turn out to be both victim and perpetrator in a crime that is less straightforward than it appears. Whether they understand it or not, the characters have been propping themselves up by their complex web of misunderstandings and lies.
As Patrick says at one point: “The reality is there are more than two sides to most stories. Truth is seldom a lens, truth is a kaleidoscope.”
Not all of the motivations ring entirely true, and I’m not sure I fully believe the explanation for the central crime. But it doesn’t really matter. You have to work hard to follow the winding road Yates sends us down, and the drive is full of pleasantly unpleasant surprises.