Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines's take on Dead Woman Walking.
Readers and reviewers alike have praised the tense opening chapters of Bolton’s latest novel, in which a crazed gunman opens fire on a hot-air balloon as it flies above the heather-swept moorlands of the Northumberland National Park, where the landscape is vast and wild and where the streams shimmer “like silver snakes.” Although the balloon has thirteen passengers, including a young family and a journalist, Bolton
focuses on Jessica Lane, the “woman in green,” and her sister, Bella. What starts out as a fortieth birthday gift to Bella soon turns into tragedy. For Jessica, the sole survivor, this will be a defining moment in her life.
The distracted pilot, the sudden flurry of camera activity, the screaming passengers,
the girl who Jessica sees running across the vast grounds of the sixteen century Harcourt Estate--all is awash in terror and blood. Jessica is able to take a photo of the slim, dark-haired, darting figure. The woman’s strangled cry is perfectly audible in the dawn air just as Jessica gets a close-up look of the man holding the rifle. There’s another burst of flame; the balloon rises then moves towards the Northumberland Wood’s electricity pylons. The shooter watches in triumph as people spiral towards the ground while the explosion flings Jessica through the air.
Bolton’s narrative is mesmerizing if a little far-fetched. The four main characters--Jessica, Bella, the shooter Patrick, and Superintendent Ajax Maldonado, the first detective to the scene accident--are equally captivating.
Now called Sister Maria Magdalena, Bella has taken on the difficult task of leaving her old life behind.
For Bella, ensconced in the vast seclusion of Wynding Priory, being at one with her new “family of God” is the only way she can assuage the despair over her brother, Ned,
and the grim certainty she’s carried in her heart for years, “crushed like black ice beneath a speeding car.”
Images flash through Jessica’s head as she scrambles and falls through branches with torn clothes and bleeding fingers, battling pain and nausea. Maybe she’s on borrowed time, “a dead woman walking,” oblivious to the clock that relentlessly ticks away her last remaining minutes.
On the run, and refusing to go to the police (“I can’t contact the police. Not here. Not in Northumberland”), she finds herself alone with her spectral companions, dark sloping figures that keep pace with her as she attempts to cross the moors and return to her home in York. Everyone in the country is looking for her--particularly Patrick and also Ajax Maldonado, who stands beneath a large beech tree just thirty meters from the spot where the balloon had eventually come down.
As in her other thrillers, Bolton spirals through points of view, from Jessica to Ajax and to Patrick. Utilizing her emblematic short, sharp chapters, the author keeps us guessing and always slightly off balance. The novel is grounded in the colorful landscapes of Northumberland.
In order to fully appreciate the sense of what Bolton is trying to accomplish, it probably helps to be familiar with the area’s coastline and with the city of York and its surrounding areas.
The cold wind comes off the North Sea in a swirling mass of dark clouds as Jessica finds herself placed in an untenable position of being prey, doing her best to escape capture.
As Jessica’s memories and thoughts collide, we see the issue as a far greater one than just the gory aftermath of the balloon accident. While Ajax drives to the gates of remote Wynding Priory, demanding answers from officious Mother Hildegard for what could possibly become a serious police investigation, Jessica’s actions put her firmly into the path of another grisly murder. Throughout, she’s muddled as she tries to stay one step ahead of the police and Patrick.
This casts the reader into the fog of Jessica’s perpetual angst and fear. Likewise, Ajax is edgy and often off-center, but he’s also quite likable and capable of eliciting compassion, until his true intentions are revealed at story’s end.
Astute readers will pick up Bolton’s point of view in the early chapters, correctly solving the riddle that takes the chaotic Jessica almost three hundred pages to figure out. Perhaps Bolton has allowed her larger themes of immigration and organ harvesting to overshadow Jessica and Bella’s fractured past, a history that ends up frustrating us with its half-understood truths and excuses. For me, the highlight of the tale was Wynding Priory’s gorgeous collection of peacocks. Parading around the Priory’s half-lit grounds, the birds are similarly enchanting and comical, ironically proving to be an integral part of the nuns’ daily existence.