Author: Christina Schwarz
In the winter of 1919, a young mother named Mathilda Neumann drowns beneath the ice of a rural Wisconsin lake. The shock of her death dramatically changes the lives of her daughter, troubled sister, and husband. . . . Told in the voices of several of the main characters and skipping back and forth in time, the narrative gradually and tantalizingly reveals the dark family secrets and the unsettling discoveries that lead to the truth of what actually happened the night of the drowning.
There’s a lot going on in this book; a lot of backstory, back and forth, flashbacks etc. So a brief synopsis is in order – Amanda Starkey returns to her family’s farm to live with her sister Mathilda and her daughter Ruth. About a year later, Mathilda mysteriously drowns leaving Amanda to care for Ruth. Mathilda’s husband, Carl, also returns to the farm after serving in the war and discovers that Amanda has become the family matriarch. Carl and Amanda work together to raise Ruth, who is sort of a problem child. At one point Amanda has to be taken to a sanatorium, but eventually returns to the family farm to continue to raise the girl. A split narrative between Amanda, Ruth and a few other minor characters reveals family secrets, how the family lives on and the truth behind Mathilda’s drowning.
I see I haven’t said enough. I thought I might omit this part, let it settle silently into the muck where it belongs, but it seems that isn’t possible. People want to hear everything, don’t they? Spy every strap and pin and hem. It’s not enough for them to run a finger along the scar or even to see the knife slice the skin, they must hear the blade purring against the whetstone (63)
Guilt, shame, mental illness and secrecy; all these are part of the propelling force of the novel. It really is a page-turner. From the beginning, it’s clear that Amanda isn’t keen on telling the truth. Flashbacks into the past reveal why. Amanda grows up the older sister to Mathilda, but obviously isn’t the favorite. She’s constantly compared to her more beautiful and charming younger sister. She also deals with her mother’s illness more explicitly than anyone else in her family. From reflections into the past, the reader learns that Amanda must be the responsible one, while Mathilda is a free bird. When Mathilda marries Carl, Amanda leaves to become a nurse, to start her own life away from the Starkey farm. But the damage is already done and what she encounters in the hospital only worsens her condition.
We met because of Private Buckle and then I killed my parents. Had I mentioned that? No, I thought I hadn’t. Of course, I didn’t mean to kill them, but in a case of death, how much does intent really matter? (65)
To me Amanda is the most intriguing character in the book. At times I pity her, other times I empathize and then there are many points when I’m disappointed. Maybe going to work as a nurse and seeing men with missing limbs and holes blown into them, would settle her own uneasiness, make her realize how much better she had it or give her a sense of belonging. I don’t know. But ultimately, working there does her no good because its at the hospital where she meets Clement Owens. He wines and dines her. Stands her up frequently but always brings flowers and an excuse as an apology. And when the deal is sealed, the truth finally comes out – he’s married! Damn. How deceptive. But then again all the signs were there; the dates always out of town, because he had a wife in town. The heartbreak and shame sends Amanda back to the family farm, only she doesn’t realize she’s carrying more than that.
There were many times when I was sure Amanda had killed Mathilda. Her episodes, the things she said and did, or didn’t do all pointed to that conclusion. What kind of person blames her niece for the death of her sister? What kind of person let's her brother-in-law think that his dead wife (her sister) was seduced by and had a child with another man?
This is a dark story about secrets, dysfunctional relationships and the imperfect love between family and friends. It's a good read.The simple truth was, she’d wormed her way in so deep, I’d never get her out. If I changed my name and went to the ends of the earth and never came back, still she wouldn’t let go. She was stuck like a burr in my hair (329)