Phillips accomplishes an astonishing act in this novel. In crafting what is part archaeological treatise and part evocative ghost story, she avoids the usual pitfalls of what might have been a cliched exercise.
In her small gem of human experience, Phillips' protagonist, Ren, plots a course through overwhelming loss to the restitution of a broken heart. Ren was only twelve years
old when she lost her older brother, Scott, his sudden disappearance so incomprehensible that she could never have anticipated it.
Scottís death completely devastates Renís happy family, her parents unable to discuss the tragedy with their growing daughter. Still, Ren achieves her dream of becoming an archaeologist, traveling to sites scattered all over the American Southwest like the Mimbres River Valley.
The unearthing of a series of bodies from the tenth and eleventh centuries held deep in the ancient site of Canada Rosa truly piques Renís interest. Buried with the bodies is a series of bowls showing part of a parrot's head and a beak, which points to a mysterious artist whose work Ren found at Crow Creek, a similar site.
Phillips posits a shifting, mercurial landscape of trees, dirt paths, pinon groves and cottonwoods. From the vantage point of Braxton house, the green willows dominate,
as do the canyon walls that catch the sun with shades of gray and pink, peach and tan. The dryness slightly mutes everything as Ren sees the imprint of bare feet and hears the ghost of a young girl laughing. Stealing quick glances at jagged rock walls, Ren works with messy-haired Silas, searching for signs of prior occupations. Only Silas will attempt to offer consolation as the wound of Renís dead brother becomes an anchor she carries through her days.
Ren finds herself slipping into a new intimacy with Silas, and sheís eager to get her hands in the dirt. The ceramics talk to Ren, each a piece a language and
message in pictures and designs ďthat speak the voices of its makers.Ē Silas,
blessed with a kind heart, sympathizes with her dilemma as he works his way inside her head
in an attempt to understand her struggles. As a painful and new romance blossoms in counterpoint to the excruciating sense of loss Ren endured
in her youth, an ancient ghost disturbs her with its warnings.
The conflict of the novel lies between the old and new, the finds at the archaeological site and whatever lies inside Renís mind, along with young Silas, who is an outsider of sorts. Amid the heat and dust
and the excitement of the dig and Scottís nighttime visits, the author unfurls a world of movement and of change, of souls shifting and drifting and severing ties to place after place.
Both a girl and a woman come to Ren, the woman in particular clothed in importance as Ren finds herself disappearing into both their lives.
Lyrical and tightly-plotted, the tale shifts perspective back and forth from Renís fractured childhood. Thereís a sense
of inevitability as Ren begins to live ďas another self in another time.Ē She and Silas work to solve the mystery of the ceremonial
macaws and the women who trained the birds and cared for them until Ren is faced with a new set of challenges: confronting the long, lost years of her denial, and hoping to convince Silas that yes, she does indeed love him.
From sufferer to fighter, Ren is unfailingly gutsy and poignant despite the
enormous consequences of Scottís death. An aching sense of loss transforms into a homage to brotherly love while the evidence of
time's passage manifests on Renís own face. Ironically, Silas becomes the substitute as does the face of a girl who, relinquishing her most precious possession, calls clear and loud to Ren from across the centuries.