The Passenger
Lisa Lutz
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The Passenger
Lisa Lutz
Simon and Schuster
320 pages
March 2016
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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We first encounter the protagonist, “Tanya Dubois”, as she goes on the run when her husband dies from a fall down the stairs. She never denies that she lives under a false identity, making it clear that she has been hiding from someone for ten years. The name change afforded by marriage provided a little more time in Wisconsin, albeit curtailed by an unfortunate demise. She hits the road again after a call for yet another fake name and identity documents, whatever security she has known forfeit with that phone call.

Driving to Austin, Texas, “Amelia Keen” settles into a cheap rented room before seeking some distraction at a quiet local bar. Although reticent to share any personal information, she has a casual conversation with the bartender, Blue, who admires the quality of her identification. When the women leave the bar at closing time, they are accosted by two strangers who force them into a black sedan at gunpoint. One of the men addresses the protagonist as “Tanya”--a bad sign. That encounter ends in bloodshed, “Amelia” and Blue now linked in common cause. With limited options, they temporarily join forces until the future becomes clearer: “You can’t just start a fight. You have to finish it. No matter what it takes.”

The pace of a novel already begun with death accelerates, as do the number of false identities as “Amelia”--now “Debra”--attempts to outrun the past. It is a shadowy existence made more menacing after the harrowing encounter outside the bar with Blue. Though their journeys differ, both women live on the fringes, embracing alternative lifestyles in lieu of their former ones. Opposites temperamentally, Blue is by far the more aggressive in her choice of solutions: “It sounded like Blue had thought this through, but she had the gift of conviction, a salesman’s heart.” Both are at a crossroads, facing decisions with unforeseeable consequences, the past hovering like a dark fog, every move dangerous, every avenue alive with the risk of discovery.

Lutz holds her cards close in this unsettling thriller, secrets laced with violence, events yet to be explained, although inserted chapters of email exchanges between two additional characters offer some hints about the painful origin of the protagonist’s flight for her life. The world goes on, Blue and Debra bound by their actions, each bedeviled by her own baggage. Whether friend or foe, Blue’s loyalty has yet to be ascertained when another character injects himself into Debra’s private nightmare: Dominic, a cop with his own hidden agenda. Dominic presents a different kind of threat, one the protagonist cannot afford, especially when a menacing stranger appears, forcing Debra to take flight once more, Dominic directly in her path. Broke and exhausted, a string of identities behind her, the journey has become unbearable: “The better I got at performance, the more I despised the show.” The circle is closing, a reckoning on the horizon.

Lutz writes with grit and conviction. Her main characters eschew the usual female attributes for the parameters of people forced to survive by their wits. Just below the façade of normalcy, the world is brutal, unapologetic travelers learning quickly the price of weakness. Falling through the cracks, even purposefully, is weighted with danger, security purchased at a price, information as valuable as loyalty is nonexistent. Whether in a vehicle, on a train or a bus, sleeping in a backseat or breaking into an abandoned cabin for a few nights respite, the protagonist’s flight from home a decade before has not brought peace or security. An unfinished story requires resolution, a twisted labyrinth of deceit unraveling as the weary woman turns homeward.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Luan Gaines, 2016

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