Bohjalian knows secret to storytelling

By Julie Wittes Schlack
Globe Correspondent / February 2, 2010

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On a summer afternoon in a small southwestern Vermont town, a pastor immerses one of his adult parishioners in a pond.

“ ‘There,’ Alice Hayward said to me after I had baptized her in the pond that Sunday . . . ‘There,’ I said to Alice in response . . . It was the word that gave [her] all the reassurance she needed to go forward into the death that her husband may have been envisioning for her - perhaps even for the two of them - for years.’’

So ruminates the Rev. Stephen Drew early on in “Secrets of Eden,’’ the latest literary thriller from Chris Bohjalian. The puzzle in this novel is not who killed Alice - it was George, her alcoholic and abusive husband - but rather, who killed George later that same night, leaving his 15-year-old daughter, Katie, an orphan.

Drew leaves his post immediately after Alice’s murder, his faith shaken by the crime. He soon becomes romantically involved with Heather Laurent, an inspirational book author. Orphaned after her own father killed her mother, then himself, Heather was a deeply depressed young woman until, on the verge of suicide, she had a vision of an angel that turned her life around. Now a chronicler of angels, the winged spiritual escorts who gently guide us through life, she is on a book tour nearby when the Hayward murder occurs.

Laurent comes to town, believing she can be helpful to Katie Hayward, and quickly bonds not only with her but also with the cerebral, privileged, and self-contained Drew. Meanwhile, State’s Attorney Catherine Benincasa has formed no such connection. Looking at the case, she neither likes nor trusts Drew and is increasingly convinced that he is implicated in George Hayward’s death.

The story is told from the perspectives of Drew, Benincasa, Laurent, and Katie Hayward. It begins with Drew’s account of the baptism and its aftermath. His voice is understated but not unfeeling; his meditation on his own journey is self-aware and ironic, bordering on bitter. It is by far the most interesting voice in the novel, but one that is never directly heard again beyond the first hundred pages.

Instead, the narrative baton is picked up by Benincasa, whose character verges on stereotype: tough-as-nails on the clock, tenderly domestic off it. But there’s nothing inauthentic about her tenacity and concern for the orphaned Katie.

If Benincasa is compassionate, Laurent is empathetic. Her account of her parents’ drunken fights are superbly written - vivid and horrifying without being melodramatic. And she is clear-eyed in documenting the impact of that legacy on her and her sister. It also falls to Laurent to weave together most of the narrative strands through her interactions with all of the primary characters, including Katie, whose very credible young voice provides the closing bookend to Drew’s opening one.

Bohjalian’s best-selling 1997 debut novel, “Midwives,’’ set a new standard for page turners that are both provocative and smart. In that tradition, “Secrets of Eden’’ is engrossing without being cheesy, informative without being didactic, and gripping despite the fact that the ending is quite predictable.

However, as a meditation on the nature of God, angels, and faith, it falls curiously flat. Bohjalian’s tone is so cooly lucid that it feels as though he has researched these concerns more than experienced them, chosen them more than been called by them. That the novel is so engaging despite that authorial distance is a tribute to Bohjalian’s storytelling skill.

Julie Wittes Schlack is a Cambridge-based writer and facilitator of online communities.

SECRETS OF EDEN By Chris Bohjalian

Shaye Areheart, 384 pp., $25