Judith Carrigan lives in Cold River, Maine, with her husband, Jake, and Jake’s teenage son, Falcon. An accomplished freelance journalist, Judith is largely content with her life--until
she reads a newspaper article about the discovery by an archeology student of a skull in Cellblock 5 of the Pennsylvanian Eastern State Penitentiary. Judith is surprised that it has taken
so many years for the corpse to turn up. She’s also assumed that on that day in 1980, “two of us were left dead, a third was unrecognizable, and a fourth was suspected of murder.”
recalls the friends of her youth--Tripper, Casey, Wailer, Rachel, Maisie, and delicate Quentin--and Quentin’s former teacher, 72-year-old Herr Nathan Krystal. The night before they visited the disintegrating
penitentiary, they were celebrating Wailer and Casey’s wedding. Remembering the prison’s stone gates and the old prison yard,
she wonders what the world would have been like if the doors had never creaked open and those creatures had never gazed up with “their cold eyes glowing the dark,” asking questions that
to this day Judith still cannot answer. Benny, Maisie’s little brother, went racing after the feral cats
down the cellblock, the others left staring into the dark at the crumbling stone walls
and listening to the moaning voice of Benny’s “caveman” in a room that smelled like rotten mushrooms and damp earth.
The root of the novel is Judith’s transformation as she plots a course from
overwhelming loss to the restitution of a broken heart. Boylan examines the allure of secrets as her characters attempt to escape the metaphorical clutches of history. The real secrets here
are the splintered relationships among the group as they clash over what happened to Wailer. The conflict of the novel lies between the old and new, the discovery of Wailer’s body and whatever lies inside Casey’s mind, as well as young Quentin. Once the epicenter of the group but also an outsider, Quentin travels
north through Maine and on into Canada and a reckoning: “I knew that I was not who I had been, but I did not yet know what it would mean to exist in the world. At least not outside the private silent realm of my own ragged heart.”
The recurring leitmotifs of art, literature, and music sing throughout Boylan’s story, offering a stirring opera of love, death, and mystery. Romantic and tightly-plotted, the tale shifts back and forth from the night at the
penitentiary to the present day, shaped by Judith’s sudden reckoning with her
past. Boylan unfurls a world of movement and change, souls shifting and drifting and severing ties to place after place. In 1987, Quentin
begins disappearing into a new life. Judith, now blessed with a home and a beautiful family,
is haunted and angry that she didn’t tell Jake the truth: “I never told him. I never told a soul. It makes me a coward, but it’s my secret to keep.” For much of her life, Judith has found it hard not to take personally the suggestion that there’s something about her “that’s not quite right.”
As Judith builds her courage to tell Jake about her past, her old friends face their own challenges when Detective Dan Dudley
of the Philadelphia police department reopens Wailer’s case so that he can finally put to rest what happened on that hot, humid summer night when those poor kids wandered around lost. Dudley
thinks the odds are pretty good it was one of the kids. Casey was the prime suspect, but Dudley hasn’t given Casey a thought in the thirty-odd
years since he walked into Casey’s restaurant and watched as the officers hauled
him off to ask questions. Judith is positive that Casey is not Wailer’s killer. She recalls the language in the “dark caves of his heart,” words unknowable to any other soul except her.
A transgendered individual herself, Boylan brings authenticity and compassion to her tale of grieving, frustrated friends constricted by the long black veil of their past.
The transgendered theme is so powerful that the murder-mystery plays second fiddle to
Judith's voyage as she transforms from beaten-down sufferer to golden-haired fighter. Integral to the novel is Quentin’s connection to Rachel, which becomes homage to
a lost and broken love. The evidence of time's passage manifests in lonely Maisie, who has spent much of her adult life teaching music to mentally challenged
children. Ironically, Tripper becomes the story’s fatal foil along with a creepy vet’s assistant who relishes the opportunity to bring the past events of Eastern State Penitentiary full-circle.
The plot devices of the secret society conveyed as an inner circle, the cloistered, gothic environment, the descent into murder, and the terrifying secret that binds the group to one another invite comparisons to works such Tartt’s
A Secret History. I think the novel is important for its depiction of the world of transgenderism--the flight into anonymity, the assumption of a new identity, and
an endless need to combat the sheer desolation of those who think they are alone in the world.