28 December 2016

Laura Lippman's WILDE LAKE

I caught up with Wilde Lake only last month, I blush to admit, since it came out in early May. This is Laura Lippman's 21st novel, and she absolutely crushes it, hits it over the lights and out of the park.
I wouldn't call it a mystery, exactly, although crimes happen in the course of the story, and buried secrets are revealed. It seems to me to be more about the nature of families, and friendships, the elastic quality of time, and what some of us might call accident, some Fate.

Lippman uses a cool device in this book. She flips back and forth between first and third person, with her heroine Lu telling her own story in the past, as a kid, but the present being third-person narrative. Both observed and observing, in other words, and Lu the observer - speaking as her younger self - isn't entirely reliable. This creates a troubling tension, Lu's father and older brother (the mom absent, having died of complications not long after Lu's birth) are seen through different lenses, or at different removes. Their dad is a seeming constant, but even he begins to shift, and the family's received wisdom with him, which gets Lu increasingly uneasy. What she thought was solid ground is instead very thin ice. The reader, trusting both voices, hears an undercurrent, a bass note.

It's hard to know which voice carries the melody and which is the rhythm section. Since the reveals are in the present day, you take that voice for true. But the kid telling the stories, later to be undeceived, has the advantage of innocence, of seeing everything for the first time. Lu as a girl might recall the voice of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, another story where dramatic ironies are kept off-stage. The child can say, without irony, without self-knowledge, things that her grown-up self would filter out, or second-guess.

Wilde Lake, to a large degree, is about cruelties of omission. These are often arbitrary, but just as often they simply fade from view. All this stuff gets left out, left out of our personal histories. And it comes back. Does it ever. The truth about Lu's mom. The truth about her husband's death. The truth about her own children. Last but not least, the truth about the night her brother broke his arm - at a high school party, where one kid died and another one wound up in a wheelchair for life. Stuff it was easier to leave out, the first time around. Silence is protective, but deception always has a sell-by date.

I don't know whether to call Wilde Lake a departure, in fact, for Laura Lippman, and I get aggravated when somebody says such-and-such transcends or reinvents or deconstructs the genre, as if genre conventions were embarrassingly limited and predictable, but the book is definitely subversive. It keeps reversing itself, and your expectations. It's mischievous without being calculated. In other words, Lippman doesn't part the curtain. She keeps faith. Lu's voice never falters, she never steps aside. You don't feel manipulated. The author isn't gaslighting you. The central trick of the novel, if it's okay to call it a trick, is that you're taken into the narrator's confidence, and when her confidence fails her, you're as marooned as she is. I think this is a remarkable effect. Sleight of hand in plain sight.

Family history can often be practiced self-deception, but not necessarily self-destructive. And buried secrets don't always need to have damaging consequences. We aren't all Oedipus. Too much, though, can be hidden in the name of kindness. We'd be better off not knowing, is the most common alibi, or its second cousin, what you don't know won't hurt you. In this story, silent knowledge poisons trust. Left unspoken, it becomes a spell whose power lies in being named, and given voice. Having taken shape, there is no proof against its magic.


  1. Sounds like one for the reading list!

  2. I loved the book, David, and your review nails it.

    Lippman pays homage to Mockingbird often. Isn't Tess Monaghan's daughter named Scout?

    It's interesting how many recent books have stories that take place in two different time periods and work well. Lippman experiments with the idea in many of her novels and keeps getting better and better. I learn more about writing every time I open one of her books.

    Alison Graylin's What Remains of Me, which is on several best of the year lists, uses a similar idea, and her style sounds a little like Lippman (Lippman blurbs it, too). Tess Gerritsen wrote Playing With Fire, two separate plots that connect (although not precisely the same characters). Didn't Lisa Gardner do it recently, too, or am I more confused than usual?

    Is this the "new trend," demanding careful planning and execution, and replacing the six-pages-and-a-cliff-hanger of the Da Vinci Code? We can hope, can't we?

    Thanks for sharing this.

  3. Very interesting piece! I haven't read this one yet, but I obviously need to!

    Laura Lippmann often experiments in voice. In The Most Dangerous Thing she narrates the flashback chapters in the first person and, on careful examination, the reader can only conclude that the narration is first person plural. (I discussed this a bit in a SleuthSayers a few years back -- http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2013/07/first-person_9647.html)

    One of the neat things about Laura Lippmann is how approachable she is. I had a nice conversation with her about voice some years back at the St. Louis Bouchercon.

  4. Holy crap, I can't wait to read it!

  5. Sounds fascinating, David. Thanks for telling us about this book.

  6. I'm a huge fan of Lippman's work myself--and embarrassed as well that I haven't gotten to this one yet.... Where did 2016 go? (....besides down the tubes, I mean.) But now even more eager to read it.


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