The literature of real-life murder is by its very nature controversial. If a writer’s sentences are personal and he has trained his lens on a bloody and unexpected horror, then naturally the reader knows where the author stands and where his passions lie. When it comes to fiction, this passion can often result in rhetoric-spouting characters whose sole purpose is to service the author’s ideas. But in See How Small, novelist Scott Blackwood has created a story that is both a howl against violence and the community that has suffered from it, as well as creating a multilayered, deeply felt tale of family, loss, memory and secrecy.
Kate Ulrich’s teenage daughters, Elizabeth and Zadie, work behind the counter of the ice cream shop that her ex-husband Ray, once owned,
each day like any other--until the afternoon that Elizabeth and Zadie, along with their co-worker, are brutally murdered. From here, the novel chronicles the story of five individuals who struggle with the aftermath of the accident. The once-tough, eternally optimistic Kate is broken and consumed by grief, unable to comprehend her sudden loss. A year after the murders, she puts the house up for sale with the memories of the girls and her failed marriage to Ray still fresh in her mind.
Another voice is Jack Dewey, the ruggedly handsome firefighter who was first on the scene, first to see the girls’ burnt and broken bodies. Now a single dad, Jack thinks about the fire while pondering his relationship with Sam, his truculent sixteen-year-old daughter who ran away three weeks ago.
Since finding the dead girls, Jack has been constantly plagued by bad dreams and cold sweats. He tries not see the images of them, naked and burned, stacked upon one another, “their open opaque eyes staring at nothing.” In his dreams, Jack speaks to them as they would be now, five years later--in their early twenties, and nearly the same age as Sam.
The journalist Rosa Heller, a Chicago reporter who covered the murders for the
Chronicle, is haunted by the girls' faces as they shine down from Austin’s billboards. Rosa has a feature story that she wants to publish six weeks before the fifth anniversary of the killings. Cobbled together from various pieces of information over the years, the evidence still tells her nothing except a string of false confessions and false leads from the witnesses in the shop earlier that day. Most of them remember nothing except a small fire breaking out near the waffle irons. A few recalled a fight in the parking lot as well as a disgruntled boyfriend of one of the girls, along with skate punks, homeless guys and dropouts, a young man in a long overcoat, and Hollis Finger, the guy with the art car, a person of interest who apparently fled the state.
The fourth and perhaps most intriguing voice is seventeen-year-old Michael Greer, who was sitting in an idling Volvo wagon behind the store on the night of the attack. He was the lookout and the driver who watched as his partners committed the crime. Michael becomes a crucial suspect in the investigation, and his surprising actions reveal ambiguous motives. As Michael descends ever further into drug-fueled, alcoholic paranoia, he’s forced to ask himself how things got so out of hand. Needing money for “whatever’s ahead,” and with his young daughter, Alice in tow, Michael visits his father’s house on Lake Austin Boulevard. Thus unspools the Michael’s account of a life lived on the edge, a masquerade of identities that causes a potential threat to his life.
Although I found the novel neither a pleasure to read nor particularly uplifting, Blackwood proves adept at moving between
each characters transitions with unique literary flare. As an invisible cord threads around them all, a pyramid of suspects take shape--Kate especially suspects everyone including Ray, who a month after the murders begged her for forgiveness on their front lawn. Besides his obvious guilt, perhaps Michael is the most sympathetic character. Harboring redemptive qualities--the bad portents, the series of odd phone calls, and the two strange men who ask about him at Alice’s preschool five years after the murders--Michael
spirals downward into the dark, demonic corners of his soul.
Each character is separate but somehow tied to the others, like elements from a collective dream. Although this experimental novel is not for all tastes, I liked the way Blackwood had a voice for many of the main characters and how he lets them tell the story through each of his short chapters. The tragedy is any parent's worst nightmare, and Blackwood does a good job of exploring the tattered corners of grief without unduly manipulating his readers' emotions.