Filler content with violence

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #31:-

Alice Hoffman
Vintage pb, 303pp, £6.99

Drifter Ethan Ford came to the small town of Monroe in Massachusetts and stayed to settle down with local girl Jorie. Thirteen years on they’re as much in love as ever, with a son Collie and a life that seems idyllic. Ethan is a highly respected member of the local community, a small town hero thanks to his efforts on the volunteer fire brigade and in teaching little league baseball. Then the police turn up one morning and place him under arrest. Thirteen years ago in Maryland, under another name, Ethan raped and murdered a fifteen year old girl. Monroe’s people refuse to believe the man they know so well could have done such a terrible thing; it has to be a case of mistaken identity. Ethan’s admission of guilt divides the town, but most come to accept his contention that he was a different man back then, and a support fund is set up to pay for lawyers. Only for those closest to Ethan it isn’t that easy, and as the fallout from this random act of violence continues people’s lives are turned upside down.

Ethan’s son, Collie, becomes sullen and withdrawn, not wanting to know his father. Twelve year old Katya, the next door neighbour who turned Ethan in to the police, now has to live with the consequences, including the effect on Collie, whom she loves, and also the erratic behaviour of her older sister Rosarie, who has developed a crush on Ethan. Jorie’s best friend Charlotte Kite, as well as being supportive, has to deal with both cancer and the protestations of love of lawyer Barney. The person most affected though is Ethan’s wife, forced to deal with the fact that the man she loves is a stranger. In an effort to make sense of what has happened Jorie embarks on a trip to Maryland to learn the truth. There she meets the victim’s younger brother James, a man still trapped in that terrible moment of violence, and receives from him the girl’s diary. It is reading this blue backed volume that finally brings home to her what she must do.

I’ll admit to being credulous of Ethan at first. Hoffman makes him too good to be true. As presented in the opening chapter he’s a man without flaw, someone who never forgets anniversaries and always says the right thing, a man who, you suspect, doesn’t have to use the toilet, let alone leave the lid up. Such a paragon of virtue is hard to swallow, but there’s a method to Hoffman’s approach; she’s deliberately raising the stakes to heighten the drama and moral dilemma that follow. Ultimately what we have here is a tragedy in the original, Shakespearean sense, the tale of a hero who falls from grace not through the machinations of others but thanks to some fatal flaw in his own character.

Hoffman’s writing is as effective as ever at capturing perfectly the beauty and rightness of the natural world, contrasting that with the occasional lapses into ugliness of the human animal. She spares us nothing in the way of brutality, the very ordinariness of Rachel Morris’s death accentuating its horror. And at heart this is what the book is really about, that violence comes too easy, but what follows isn’t easy at all. Everyone in this book is hurting; everyone has lost something, and Hoffman makes us feel their pain as if it were our own.

This is a book about what happens when your life is turned upside down, when you learn that your comfortable existence is based on a lie. It’s about the consequences of our actions and the hard choices that sometimes have to be made. Hoffman lays everything out in meticulous detail, painstakingly dissecting this small town tragedy, but offering no judgement, leaving the reader to decide. It’s an intensely moving book, particularly in the pivotal Maryland section, which more eloquently and heartrendingly than any other brings home what this is really all about.

Blue Diary is a triumph of the novelist’s art, and quite possibly Hoffman’s best book yet.

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