99 Luftballoons

One of the things I managed to do during my Facebook exile was finish reading Adam Sternbergh’s The Blinds, which is, for wont of a better word, simply extraordinary.

the blinds

She’s old enough, at thirty-six, to remember flashes of other places, other lives, but her son is only eight years old, which means he was born right here in the Blinds. She was four months pregnant on the day she arrived, her secret just starting to show. If the intake officer noticed, he didn’t say anything about it as he sat her down at a folding table in the intake trailer and explained to her the rules of her new home. No visitors. No contact. No return. Then he taught her how to properly pronounce the town’s official name–Caesura, rhymes with tempura, he said–before telling her not to worry about it since everyone just calls it the Blinds.

Caesura.

A bad name, she thought then and thinks now, with too many vowels and in all the wrong places. A bad name for a bad place but, then, what real choice did she have?

Reclining now at two A.M. on the wooden steps of her front porch, she pulls out a fresh pack of cigarettes. The night is so quiet that unwrapping the cellophane sounds like a faraway bonfire. As she strips the pack, she looks over the surrounding blocks of homes with their rows of identical cinder block bungalows, each with the slightly elevated wooden porch, the same scrubby patch of modest yard. Some people here maintain the pretense of giving a shit, planting flowers, mowing grass, keeping their porches swept clean, while others let it grow wild and just wait for whatever’s coming next. She glances down the street and counts the lights still on at this hour: two, maybe three households. Most everyone else is sleeping. Which she should be, too. She definitely shouldn’t be smoking.

I read Adam Sternbergh’s debut novel, Shovel Ready, several years ago when I was moderating a panel at the MWA Edgar Symposium which he was on; he was nominated for Best First Novel and I have to say, I was completely blown away by it. (If you haven’t read it, you need to. NOW.) In the years since, I’d lost track of his career and his novels; there is only so much time  and there are so many great novels and great writers. But a friend had read The Blinds in an ARC (advance review copy) and raved about it, so I made a note of it. I was also able to get a copy at the HarperCollins group signing event at Bouchercon in Toronto–where I got so much of the great stuff I’ve been reading lately, well done, HarperCollins–and last week I started reading it.

Wow. I mean, seriously. WOW.

As a reader, I am constantly blown away by some of the amazing writers and books I read. As a writer, I am intimidated and shamed. I cannot even imagine conceiving of something remotely like The Blinds, and even if somehow I could, I couldn’t pull it off.

The premise behinds the book is that a medical science technology company has developed a process which can erase memories. The driving force behind this process development was to work with trauma patients, but the company also came up with a new use for it as well: rather than Witness Protection or life sentences in prison, people could be sentenced to have their memories of what they did or what they witnessed excised, and they could then live in relative freedom (restrained) in this small community of Caesura, in the heat-blasted dry wastelands of west Texas. No one knows who anyone is there; everyone takes a new name on arrival–one name chosen from a list of movie stars and another chosen from a list of vice-presidents–and then they live out their lives in a fairly dull, meaningless way in this town.

It actually sounds quite horrible, to be honest, and Sternbergh captures the bleakness of living there beautifully and chillingly.

The book opens with a murder taking place there…a few weeks after a suicide. And suddenly, the quiet, empty life everyone knows there is no longer quite so quiet and empty anymore. Has the experiment failed? Who could have committed the crime? And as you turn each riveting page, the story gets even more complex and horrifying as the truth slowly begins to unravel and you learn the secrets of Caesura, with the tension and suspense ramping up with every page until the most amazing, horrifying, and terrifying conclusion I have read in any novel in a long time.

The Blinds is going to be nominated for every award under the sun, and deservedly so.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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