Joss takes a nightmarish hit-and-run accident and expresses the resulting chaos on the character’s lives in brilliant prose: “Daylight came bobbing at the edges, bright with malice.” The result is a profoundly disturbing psychological novel of accident and consequences that tears apart a bucolic country scene with the harsh finality of sudden death.
The author’s ease with language does much to create the subtle dramatic frisson that lingers long after the event that triggers the novel. But nothing occurs in a vacuum, although it is troubling that the unnamed protagonist, a doctor’s soon-to-be-ex-wife, at first shocked by the accident, is thereafter unable to report herself to the authorities and take the responsibility for Ruth Mitchell’s death.
The tale begins with distraction: the protagonist has borrowed her husband’s prized yellow Saab convertible to run errands. Her purchases spill and threaten to ruin the plush upholstery of the new car as she frantically searches for something to stop the damage. In the course of that search, she makes a discovery that drastically changes her life within moments.
Shards of sunlight stab through the windshield on the country road she has taken home from her errands. The wife struggles to make sense of what she has found in the glove box, her thoughts scattered, driving less than attentive. Seconds later she collides with a woman on a bicycle, sixty-one-year-old Ruth killed instantly.
One can only imagine such a moment, and Joss does so skillfully - the shock, denial, guilt, shame and fear that assaults the driver staring at the awful consequences of her inattention. Grabbing a sheaf of papers Ruth was carrying that are now scattering in the wind, the driver impulsively speeds away, leaving the scene of the crime, her victim pale in death, blackbirds soaring above the corpse.
The unfolding consequences are revealed through three perspectives: the guilty, shattered hit-and-run driver; letters from the bereaved husband, Arthur, to his dead spouse in an effort to resolve his grief; and a story Ruth had penned for her writer’s group, “The Cold and the Beautiful and the Dead,” portions of which will obsess Arthur as the painful days pass.
It is the beauty of the prose that creates a contrast with harsh reality: the protagonist’s agonizing movements after the deed, her guilt and its ultimate resolution, Arthur’s utter devotion and confusion as he gradually deteriorates from the burdens of life without Ruth, and Ruth’s inner life as revealed in her story, a tale within a tale, couched in the truth of experience.
In a subtle twist of fate, one thoughtless act sunders the lives of three people - Ruth, the broken Arthur, and the woman whose impulsive choice is first to walk away, later to intrude where she does not belong, the beginning of her undoing.