The third novel from B.C.-born Emily St. John Mandel, about the way the panicked actions of one terrified young girl resonate a decade later, has aspects of family drama and literary noir.
Anna Montgomery, a high school student from a broken home in Sebastian, Florida, is dating Gavin Sasaki, who plays trumpet in the titular jazz quartet, which also features Anna’s half-sister, Sasha, as well as band mates Daniel and Jack. As graduation nears, Anna mysteriously stops returning Gavin’s phone calls. Although there are rumours of a pregnancy, Gavin never hears another word from Anna and, assuming she has dispensed with him, he leaves at the end of the summer to attend journalism school in New York.
Fast forward 10 years. Gavin is a reporter for the New York Star, where people are being laid off indiscriminately. Succumbing to the pressure, Gavin fabricates quotes for his stories, a transgression that results in his firing. After returning home to work for his sister, she shows him a photograph of a 10-year-old girl who could be his daughter. The mystery girl and Anna are nowhere to be found, but Gavin is determined to track them down.
Moving between the characters’ high school past and their gritty present, and dramatizing the action from several points of view, Mandel skilfully peels back the layers to reveal how each member of the quartet became complicit in a series of bad choices. Mandel’s ability to humanize each deeply flawed character makes it easier to understand how they manage to justify their otherwise questionable decisions.
While frustrating at times, the improbable number of people who put themselves in danger to protect Anna illustrates the way these characters yearn to do the right thing, their own sins and shortcomings notwithstanding. Ultimately, the novel is about the lengths to which even the most troubled people will go to protect the ones they love. Mandel’s skill as a storyteller results in a tightly wound narrative that continues to surprise right up to the final page.