Thought has always complicated life in two ways: there is either not enough of it or too much of it. Sometimes, the most basic concepts can elude us because of our tendency to overthink things. This is just one of many ideas and multi-layered themes running through Place, an interesting read that brings fresh ideas and skilled writing to a suspense/thriller genre often lacking those qualities. Author Ned White does his best (and succeeds) in showing that exciting plot-driven stories can also hold literary value if written well.
The story revolves around main character Hugh Ogden. Ogden is a rather average person: middle-aged, divorced, a math and computer wiz. Then he meets his new wife, Abigail, a remarkable woman with a remarkable circumstance: every now and then she disappears – literally. The reasons behind this come to light as Hugh tells the story of his marriage to Abigail and the life they have together, not always in chronological order.
The story starts near the end of the plot and is told mostly in flashbacks, as Hugh describes meeting Abigail and recounts their life together. The beginning seems a little slow as White describes a lot about his characters and their professional backgrounds, information that while pertinent to the set-up of the novel, tends to drag on unnecessarily. There is also a lot of philosophizing about science and math and how it pertains to human existence.
The story picks up quickly, though. There is much travel throughout the novel as the characters visit family and move around for their jobs, but the novel is set primarily in the American Southwest. White does a good job of using the anonymity of the nation’s desert to add to the mystery surrounding the plot. The author describes their house as “It rests in the hills west of Santa Fe among clusters of other old adobes, trailers, gray-weathered shacks, and a collection of teepees at road’s end.” Here Hugh and Abigail will adopt a young boy who has been abandoned and abused by his natural family. Hugh is somewhat estranged to the daughter from his first marriage and Abigail lost her son in a tragic accident, so the boy creates a new family dynamic and becomes a vital part of the story Hugh is telling readers.
Family is one theme written throughout the narrative. The reader will find out much more about each character’s family background and how these backgrounds have influenced the situation they are now in. The boy’s adoption prompts Hugh to found a sort of youth center. A bit of social commentary about the mistreatment of children is woven into the plot by these events. All the while, the disappearances are becoming more frequent (and more public) as the story goes on.
While Abigail continues to vanish in and out of our reality, there is increased uneasiness about who knows of her situation. Set almost entirely in the last decade with the majority of the story post-9/11, there is an undercurrent of fear as Hugh and Abigail begin to be shadowed by white vans and strange officials. The paranoia becomes so strong due to the political climate that the main characters consider flight. White drops the occasional line about Hugh and Abigail’s feelings, such as “There is no immunity anywhere in the world, we agree, from the American juggernaut.” A lot of the story revolves around their fear of investigation, and it’s blatantly obvious that White is being critical of people’s reactions following 9/11. This could have the potential to be preachy, but White narrowly avoids a diatribe by using the nation’s mood at that time to build upon the story.
Place is probably best categorized as a thriller. The sentence structure is simple, sans flowery descriptions or romantic concepts. It is very plot-driven: the reader wonders why Abigail keeps disappearing and, as she does so, the suspense builds. White engenders eagerness to find out the meaning surrounding the disappearances and if there is a conspiracy involved. At the same time, Place contains much deeper themes of family and society, so it reads as a piece of literature capable of moving the reader and achieving much more than just suspense and thrills. The novel is engaging without being sloppy and meaningful without being boring. Most importantly, Place is a good story.