Jennifer McMahon
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Buy *Burntown* by Jennifer McMahononline

Jennifer McMahon
304 pages
April 2017
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Given the theme of McMahon’s entertaining airplane mystery with heart--a young girl’s search for the shattered pieces of her past--I anticipated much more character depth and less paranormal elements (this seems to be a trademark plot device in all McMahon’s novels). Violence dominates in 1975 in Braxton, Vermont, when 10-year-old Miles Sandeski watches a man in a chicken mask slay his mother, Elizabeth, in the backyard of their family home. Miles’ father, Martin, is eventually taken into custody and charged with the crime, yet Miles remains haunted by a series of plans given to him by Martin. Rolled up in a plastic bag and left in the garage, Martin has promised that the plans, designed by Thomas Edison, will someday make Miles a fortune.

McMahon explores the transformation of the things we carry inside us and how we may have the power to bring our true selves to life. On Halloween night in 2000, Miles--himself now a husband and father--comforts his daughter, Eva, during a violent storm as the river next to their farm house threatens to overflow its banks. Leading an isolated life outside of Ashford, a steadily deteriorating industrial town that is now “filthy and full of poisons,” Miles remains haunted by the events of his childhood. He can’t bring himself to tell the truth to Eva, saying instead that his parents were killed “in some kind of an accident.”

McMahon’s thriller has a lot going on: the hum of the ghostly static in Miles’ phone device and the presence of Errol, Eva’s brother, who holds the dreaded chicken mask on the night of The Great Flood. After the events of that terrible evening, Eva (who now goes by the name “Necco”) finds herself stranded with only her mother, Lily, to look after her. Lily tells her that the old name is one she has left behind and that  “it’s just too dangerous to think about the past.” Nevertheless, Necco constantly pesters her mother for details about what actually happened during the flood.

Necco attempts to eke out an existence at The Palace, a rusted-out Pontiac parked and abandoned in a vacant lot called Burntown. She also gains a reputation with the local school kids as “the fire girl.” Her new boyfriend, Hermes, moves in with her just after her mother dies, but Necco can’t stop thinking about the memories of her father, Errol, and her Momma, all now gone. As her past unravels “like a ball of yarn,” Necco connects with Theo, a student at Two Rivers High School. For the moment, Theo is more concerned with peddling pills and weed, and “the new thing,” a red powder called the Devils Snuff which is in huge demand and a drug dealer’s dream.

Necco is smart enough to heed the warning of terribly danger from Miss Abigail, the leader of the group of fire-eating women who live under the bridge in shacks cobbled together from shipping pallets and driftwood. Everything comes back to the events on the day of The Great Flood and a man who her mother called Snake Eyes. Meanwhile, Pru Small, an overweight cafeteria worker, harbors secret circus fantasies of performing as the Fat Lady Queen and the bright star of the Big Top. A plea for Theo to bring “more vitamins” ushers Sue into Necco’s trajectory and into a murderous cat-and-mouse game with Snake Eyes.

Because the novel is basically told from multiple points of view--Necco, Theo, Sue and Fred, a detective urgently looking for Eva--the narrative tends to be choppy in terms of style and flow. It took me a few cycles of the characters’ perspectives to fully feel comfortable with the points of view. The only connection to Necco, other than Miles’ phone invention and the chicken mask, is the old Sandeski house, which Necco thinks was destroyed in the great flood. Burntown holds its secrets, riddles, and enigmas. If Necco wants to make sense of what happened to Hermes and Lily, she must try to remember everything she can. Pru suggests that her father tried to kill her and her mother, but Necco is certain that Miles loved her. He shared things with her, top-secret things like his invention and the voice that comes out of it: “I’m whoever you want me to be.”

The author’s gangbusters approach to drugs, homicide, arson, and obesity compels us to keep turning pages until the final (rather tacked-on) conclusion in which Necco’s past finally comes together in a violent denouement. For the most part, McMahon infuses her story with elements of gritty street realism, contributing to our understanding of Necco, Theo, and Sue’s emotional strengths and weaknesses. At least at story’s end, through the wisdom of perseverance, Necco will finally be able to put the ghosts of her past to rest.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Michael Leonard, 2017

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