Michael F. Epstein
Special to the Banner
Melanie Finn's novel "The Underneath" (Two Dollar Radio, 2016), a nominee for the 2017 Vermont Book Award, begins with Kay Ward's flashback to Africa, where she re-experiences an attempted rape and the execution of the rapist. Then we find ourselves in the present, where Kay makes the decision to euthanize a cat found in a trap in the basement of a rental house and also learns that she is about to be left alone in rural Vermont with her two children because her husband is being called back to Africa for an emergency.
Worn out yet? And that was only in the first fifteen pages. Those of you looking for a romantic diversion during your summer vacation, an idyllic trip through one of Vermont's most beautiful regions, or a quiet story to lull you to sleep at bedtime should look elsewhere. Finn has written a fine book, but it is full of tension, more reminiscent of Stephen King or Lee Child than Nicholas Sparks.
If a novelist's goal is to create a make-believe world that is believable, inhabited by characters who feel real and for whom you care and then to tell a compelling story about those characters in that setting, then Finn has admirably succeeded.
This is a tale of intrigue, violence, and human redemption in which Finn weaves together two stories that on the surface should have no logical intersection in time or space. Ben Comeau, young, handsome, strong, and smooth-talking, is a native of Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. He works as a logger, clear cutting his beloved forests, to create a legitimate front for his primary business — moving heroin from Vermont to Canada. Abused and neglected by his drug-addicted, prostitute mother, he was raised in foster homes. Perhaps seeing his young self in a withdrawn, silent, and traumatized two-and-a-half-year-old, Jake, Ben is moved to take in Jake and his mother when the boy is picked up by the police wandering in a snowstorm wearing only a diaper and filthy T-shirt. Ben is the proverbial thief (or in this case, drug-dealing murderer) with a heart of gold.
His path crosses Kay's, an international journalist who has spent her years reporting on and being traumatized by violent revolutions in Africa and who is now renting a house in the Kingdom with her husband and two children on vacation from their London home. The house belongs to Frank, Ben's oldest friend from foster home days and his partner in the heroin and logging businesses, who seems to have gone missing. When Kay's husband, a documentary filmmaker, is suddenly called away to Africa on an emergency (or is it for an illicit tryst?), Kay has time on her hands and begins to explore Frank's house. She discovers enough weird elements that she begins to apply her investigational skills to unearth what has happened to Frank and his family. Bad decision, Kay. Better she should have stuck with making blueberry muffins and picking the kids up on time at camp. But then, there wouldn't have been much of a story.
Ben and Kay become physically and emotionally entangled, and as the book winds down, the relationship becomes potentially fatal for Kay. Finn, in the long tradition of Gothic and horror fiction, is effective at keeping a feeling of mounting dread in the reader. I found it difficult to read this book before bedtime since every time I closed it, I felt unsettled, edgy, nervous, and downright uncomfortable worrying about Kay and her children or Jake. The fact that Finn made me care so much demonstrates her skill as a writer.
The minimalist portrait of the abused and neglected Jake is perhaps Finn's best character development. She provides few details about his past, and he doesn't say a word until the book is nearly finished, but I cared deeply about what was going to happen to this little guy. When it looks like Ben's plan to save Jake is about to go up in smoke, I fretted. When Ben and Jake manage to find their happy ending together, I cheered.
Finn also does a fine job in portraying Kay's children, the rising adolescent Freya and her little brother, Tom. Their confusion, anger, and fear as their parents' marriage disintegrates and they are stranded in an alien and scary land is palpable.
Finn has written a fine piece of fiction. It will make you concerned, worried, and anxious, but we read at least in part to escape our everyday world. Once you step into Finn's Northeast Kingdom, a return trip to your daily and predictable life looks pretty attractive. The tension upon re-opening this book each time is one of the beauties of reading, so read Finn and enjoy.
Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Brownsville and Cambridge, Mass. His reading and reviews can be followed at www.epsteinreads.com.