Laura McHugh’s debute, The Weight of Blood, proved to be an exceptional read, a haunting tale of the Ozarks with a mystery at its heart.
So Auntie M was looking forward to her newest, Arrowood, set in Keokuk, Iowa, and she is happy to report this second book exhibits the same strengths that made McHugh’s debut outstanding. There is the compelling setup and plot; the characters and depths of human nature she plumbs; the way the setting becomes integrated to be a character itself. McHugh captures the lazy feel and slow deterioration of the southern Iowa town on the Mississippi, a town where protagonist Arden was raised, that once featured ornate and lovely grand houses lining the road along the riverside but now has the feel of something dying.
It’s to her recently inherited family home that Arden returns after the death of her father, abandoning her unfinished Master’s thesis in the process. Though the dust and leaks, the bones of the old house are still fine, and she sets about trying to recapture a part of the childhood she holds in her memory, the years before her younger twin sisters were kidnapped and presumed dead. Tabitha and Violet had never surfaced, and twenty years have passed with Arden’s memory giving her a snapshot of a gold car pulling away from the curb in the front of her house, a flash of white she assumed was her sister’s hair in the front seat. It’s a mystery that has never been solved, but part of Arden’s quest to return to her old home is to lay to rest the ghosts of that awful sunny day.
Arden will find, to her surprise, that some of her former neighbors and friends have never left the area and she wonders if she can rekindle old relationships. She will become suspicious of the new man who claims to be obsessed with unsolved crimes and is writing a book about her lost sisters. She will worry that the handyman who’s been caring for and preserving the house all of these years is hiding his own secrets.
Most of all, she will find that beneath the dust and the haze of her own memories of that day, lie more secrets than she could ever have guessed.
Auntie M’s writer friend, Linda Lovely, is from Keokuk, so she was familiar with the name and a bit of the area and its history. Under McHugh’s talented writing, the whole area comes to life in a sleepy way that is characteristic of towns succumbing to the ravages of time and slowed economics.
The suspense almost has a creepy value to it, in a mild way, but one that sustains the tension of suspense, hovering just under the surface: are the dead sisters trying to send Arden clues? But this is not a ghost story.
It is, instead, the story of a brave young woman trying to unravel what is real and what is not in her memory, as she tries to put her own ghosts to rest. The startling conclusion makes sense in a way that probes the psychology of Arden’s family and friends. Highly recommended.