Sunday, July 5, 2015
Review: Jenny Milchman's As Night Falls
As Night Falls. Jenny Milchman. Ballantine-Random House, June 30, 2015. ISBN-978-0-553-39481-8. Hardcover $26. 367 pp.
Jenny Milchman’s third novel, As Night Falls, adds another play to what could be a dramatic trilogy. All three of her suspense novels take place in Wedeskyull, in the Adirondacks. Each one features a woman who comes to be and feel alone in an overwhelmingly terrifying situation. In each case the woman, who had been relying on others for support and comfort, must go it alone. She gradually takes on what fate has handed her. This transformation alone is worth the read. Like the figure of Antigone in the ancient Greek drama based on the Oedipus myth, she defies the forces marshaled against her.
Milchman is a master at building suspense slowly but surely. The confrontation with the killer is only part of the story and is deftly woven into the fabric of a family drama. Milchman explores all the nuances of the emotional states her characters pass through. In this novel the main action takes place in twenty-four hours, another bow to the Greek playwrights.
Sandy Tremont, her husband Ben, and their fifteen-year-old daughter Ivy are living what passes these days for a normal middle-class life. Sandy works as a therapist in a hospital clinic. Ben has his own company that features Off Road Adventures, such as skiing off the trails, free-climbing, or biking. He seems to need that kind of scary stimulation. All Sandy wants is family peace, but her daughter Ivy prefers to fight with her and knocks Sandy for a loop by calling her a liar. Sandy never lied to Ivy, intent on having a close bond with her, but she doesn’t want Ben to know anything bad about Ivy, like the lying accusation or the failing paper Ivy brought home from school to be signed. She says to Ivy, “We won’t tell Daddy.”
Interwoven with pre-dinner evening rituals with this family, we meet the prisoners Nick and Harlan, who are out this cold day on a road assignment. Nick is planning their escape though none has been successful since he entered this prison twenty-four years earlier. They do succeed in jumping into a large SUV driven by a woman who follows the orders to drive to Long Hill Road in Wedeskyull. When she stops and then jumps from the car and runs into the woods, Nick orders his huge but not intelligent friend Harlan to go after her and kill her. Harlan doesn’t want to kill anyone, and Nick has to consider that, despite Harlan’s loyalty to him, he might turn against Nick. Nevertheless he forces Harlan to stab her with a nail file, and they get away and head toward the place where Nick intends to get supplies before going deep into the woods north toward Canada, where he’s sure they’ll never be found.
The cold and the oncoming snowstorm might be a problem, but Nick summons his old confidence and they drive to the home of Sandy, Ben, and Ivy. While building the suspense, Jenny also flashes back to Nick’s mother Barbara, who was entranced by her beautiful, willful son from birth and fears his tantrums even before age three.
We also visit Ivy, sulking and lonely, in her bedroom with the dog Mac, with whom she has been raised, and whose fur she cries into when she can get none of her friends to come over or text with her. She is then answering a text from a new friend named Cory, who has asked her to go out with him, and she has said yes, when she hears the front door bang open.
Nightmare enters this mostly peaceful family’s world, its dynamics only a little dysfunctional because of feelings repressed, truths not told, old secrets buried.
Nick’s family, we already know, has been very dysfunctional, as the therapists say. His mother is obsessed with her beautiful, smart, and tempestuous son. All his misbehavior, including a streak of cruelty, is whitewashed by this Jocaste figure, who continues to believe he is creative and sensitive. Her Nicky ends up in prison for murder. We understand by the time the two escapees arrive at Sandy’s house that little Nicky has become a cold-blooded killer, and his friend Harlan’s brute strength is his chief weapon.
The Oedipus myth, which Sigmund Freud brought into the discipline of psychotherapy, stands behind the three heroines of Jenny’s books, for all resemble Antigone in their lonely fight for justice against huge odds. Antigone was the daughter of Oedipus by his mother, Jocaste. When Oedipus put his eyes out upon realizing he’d killed his father and married his mother, Antigone accompanied him when he left Thebes. When Creon took over the Theban throne, Antigone’s two brothers fought and killed each other. Creon would not allow one of them to be buried, and Antigone buried him despite the king’s order. Her name means “against the seed,” i.e, the male. You could say she was an early feminist. In As Night Falls, the mother-son duo of Nick and his mother Barbara is the original Oedipal story/myth/complex made quite contemporary. Who hasn’t met grown men obsessed with their mothers who never saw any faults in them. The resulting adults can’t take in the psychic reality of other people and their feelings.
This story is a grand interruption by the gods as a modern, middle class family has to cope with the nightmare of having two killers invade their home. There are, as well, many flashbacks, in which we learn the story of the original dysfunctional family, that of Nick, his parents, and sister. Sandy and Ben’s buried secrets and fears emerge when they are fighting to survive any way they can.
Jenny has worked as a therapist, and her vision of the family insists that, for harmony and good feelings, all those fears and secrets need to be out in the open so that healing and forgiveness can take place. Is it possible to go through the nightmare this story is for its main characters and come out a whole, functional family? Jenny thinks so and knows how to write a compelling story that’s believable both in its terror and in its optimism.
Jenny Milchman is the author of Cover of Snow, which won the Mystery Writers of America’s Mary Higgins Clark Award, Ruin Falls, and As Night Falls. She is the chair of International Thriller Writers’ Debut Authors program, a member of the Mystery Writers of America and New York Writers Workshop, and the creator and organizer of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, which is celebrated annually in all fifty states. Milchman lives in the Hudson Valley with her family