Sleep has eluded me all week; I lie in bed all night half-awake and half-asleep, hoping that my mind will stop racing and I will somehow, as I toss and turn, find a position in my bed that will allow me to, at last, find sleep. I grow tired every evening before bed–and have stayed away from screens, since I’ve read in many places that sleeplessness can be caused by the light emitted by computer and device screens–but it is all for naught. I’m not sure what has caused this change, and I am afraid I will never sleep deeply again.
Last night I had to do bar testing, and when I got home I finished reading Lisa Unger’s In the Blood.
There are twelve slats of wood under my bed. I know this because I count them over and over. Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineteneleventwelve. I whisper the numbers to myself and the sound of it comforts me as I’m sure a prayer would comfort someone who believes in God. It’s amazing how loud a whisper can be. Surrounded down there by the white glow of my bed skirt, the sound of my own voice in my ears, I can almost block out the screaming, the horrible keening. And then there’s the silence, which is so much worse.
In the quiet, which falls like a sudden night, I can hear the beating of my own heart, feel it thudding in my chest. I lie very still, willing myself to sink into the pile of the carpet lower and lower until I don’t exist at all, There is movement downstairs. I hear the sound of something heavy scraping across the dining room floor. What is he doing?
I have come to this place before. Here, I have hidden from the frequent and terrible storms of my parents’ miserable marriage. And I have listened as their voices break through the thick walls and the heavy, closed doors. But usually I can only hear the ugly cadence of their voices, and very rarely their words, which I know to be hateful and spiked with old hurts and bitter resentments. It is a poison in the air, a toxic cloud. Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineteneleventwelve. Sticks and stone can break your bones, but words can break your heart.
Over the last year, I’ve become an enormous fan of Lisa Unger. This is the third book of hers that I’ve read since the first of the year, and like the two before it, it’s absolutely stunning. The cadence of the words, the way the story is structured to build, and the words themselves, chosen with infinite care, create a thing of beauty about a terrifying darkness.
The book is set in The Hollows, a small town in upstate New York which Unger has visited before; the two previous works of hers that I’ve read were also set in this strange town where bizarre things happen; where it is not unusual for ghosts to appear, and madness is only a short step away. The Hollows is Unger’s Castle Rock, her Collinsport, her Bon Temps; a town where violent death and passionate love are possible; where the veil between the world of the living and the dead is as thin as the wall between sanity and madness.
In the Blood is the tale of Lana Granger, a damaged young college student who has come to The Hollows to attend Sacred Heart College and completely disappear from a horrific past that is slowly revealed to the reader; each revelation even more horrific than the last. Lana is heavily medicated, “flat”, as she calls it; Unger exploration of that state of mind, a drug-induced emotionless existence, seems not only realistic but tragic and sad at the same time. Lana is convinced by her faculty advisor to take a job as babysitter/nanny for a troubled twelve year old named Luke, who lives with his mother in a big Victorian house a short bike ride from the campus. Two years earlier, a young female student disappeared from the campus and was found dead a few days later; one of Lana’s roommates, Beck, with whom she has a challenging relationship, disappears after a public argument with Lana in the library. Luke isn’t just troubled, he’s dangerous, and the two begin a dangerous dance, as he dangles bait in front of her to lure her into his games.
As Lana’s story unfolds, every other chapter is a diary excerpt; the diary of a woman trying to maintain her own sanity as she realizes, almost from birth, that there’s something wrong, something horrifically off, about her son. Is Luke’s mother’s diary, with Unger showing the reader the horror of what being a mother to a budding psychopath must be like? Or is it something else?
And there is history here as well; murder tangled up in the DNA Lana has gotten from both of her parents. And as the reader learns more and more of Lana’s secrets, the more terrifying the story becomes.
Much has been made lately of the use of the Unreliable Narrator; Unger’s main characters are always unreliable, but she manages to not make it a cliche, nor does she seem to do it in order to pull off unforeseen, out-of-the-blue plot twists on her readers; she manages to do this in a wholly organic way that completely makes sense. She is a master; her books are stunning works of art, as complexly constructed as a human personality, with all of its quirks and tics.
I was troubled by one particular plot twist; but I cannot write about that without undermining the pleasure of reading the book; pulling that thread will unravel the entire story and ruin the book for anyone who hasn’t read it, which is a pity; it’s something that I feel should be discussed, and I also see not only why it was a necessary turn for the story–it completely made sense and pulled everything together–but at the same time it made me a bit uncomfortable.
Read this book. Read Lisa Unger. And cherish the experience.