Rebecca Rosenblum opens her commanding, technically impressive debut novel with a note-perfect chapter titled “Marriage.” Assured and captivating, it portrays a deeply melancholic narrator, a slumped English professor in “the middle of a near-silent summer,” who attends an obligatory wedding with his “sharply self-sufficient wife.” Len is a brooding presence, with a state of mind that’s regretful (“I remember how it felt to live a life worth remembering”) and forlorn. Earlier, he reports that at the end of the previous semester he’d been teaching a Canadian poetry course featuring Julianna Ohlin, a young poet murdered in the mid-1990s in his hometown of Iria, Ontario. Then one of his students, herself an aspiring poet, disappeared: “Catherine Reindeer left the restaurant where she worked at the end of a day shift, but didn’t come home that night, or any night since.” Now that she’s gone, he confides, “I think of her constantly.”
Across the subsequent page-turning but emotionally resonant and strikingly written 14 chapters, Rosenblum extends the portraiture immensely while working with and against murder-mystery conventions. She focuses each chapter on one figure at assorted points in time. There’s Catherine’s horror-struck mother, bereft husband, violent kidnapper, frightened colleague, and in one fraught chapter, Catherine herself, trapped in a dank basement and chained next to Donny, a high school student abducted shortly before her. Additional chapters conjure Donny’s girlfriend, reach back in time to the enraged boyfriend of the murdered poet, and, beguilingly, conjure the poet herself in a kind of post-mortem limbo. Rosenblum’s mastery of these voices is remarkably confident and never less than invigorating.
In the novel’s second part, Catherine has freed herself, but as a “new person … so changed” (in her mother’s words) her recovery from her ordeal – its intimacies, horrors, and damages – is anything but assured. Her trauma, of course, reverberates across Iria.
Like Carol Shields’s Swann and Robert McGill’s The Mysteries, Rosenblum’s novel meditates on connections and community, loss and love. Beautiful, affecting, and striking, this powerfully assured debut novel is literary fiction from an author who also shows herself to be the capable architect of a complex and rousing story.