From the moment Sycamore opens, a smudge of darkness covers the characters. I literally came away from Chancellor’s novel with tears in my eyes; the author tunnels us into a hamster wheel of secrets and sadness that have no end in sight. Is this a murder mystery, or a portrait of a town lost in grief after the disappearance of a teenage girl? After
18 years, the people of Sycamore, Arizona are still hoping for some kind of news of the whereabouts of
17-year-old Jess Winters, who went missing in December 1991. Although there were never any arrests or charges made in connection with her loss, Jess’s mother, Maud--the town’s mail carrier--secretly hopes that “J-bird” will return.
What follows isn't a traditional thriller.
Instead, Jess’s vanishing is a dramatic window to the angst that swallows Chancellor’s characters. Over the years, instability, anger and uncertainty have plagued Jess’s friends and acquaintances, forcing us to question who each person is when no one is watching. Although Maud has stopped holding anniversary memorials, and the local headlines have long since faded from view, she still seeks affirmation from her two oldest friends, Ester and Rachel, who meet with her over coffee and provide her with a lifeline to her daughter. Maud has stayed at the same address, just happy to do her postal route through the Riverbend subdivision behind the high school, the last place where Jess was seen.
Lately Maud has become distracted and jittery. She still hears Jess’s voice,
as well as the words and phrases from her notebooks: “buzzing like the swarms of
cicadas at dusk.” Imaginings couple with the speculation about what actually happened: “body snatched, body bloated, body burned.” As the years march on, there have been no answers, no hidden clues, and all the suspects interviewed had air-tight alibis. The prevailing theory was that Jess was just another teenage runaway who didn’t want to be found.
There's Jess’s last note: “mom I’m going out for a walk. I need to clear my head, I’ll be back in a couple of hours.” Maud also recalls the last Thanksgiving dinner she spent with Jess before it all fell apart,
when Jess and her best friend, Dani Newell, were finally confronted by a revelation from Dani’s boyfriend, Paul, that shattered Adam, Dani’s father. Maud can still see Dani “retching into the carpet” and Adam, “as pale as the mashed potatoes,” this man and artist forced to hide his face from his mortified, unsuspecting wife.
Interspersing Maud’s narrative is Jess’s voice as well as those of the girl's friends. Chancellor captures the malaise of the teenage years as Jess’s youthful clumsiness gives way to a passionate, womanly polish. In the first weeks, the kids at school called Jess “the new girl, the Phoenix girl,” exhibiting a wariness that this city girl would dare to look down on them. After falling out with Angie, her first true friend, untethered and vulnerable Jess meets Dani. Soon after, she forms a connection with Dani’s handsome, middle-aged father. But Jess is blinded by her budding attraction to Adam, and she refuses to confide in Dani or to her mother about the moment when Adam lit “a slow fire” in her that transformed into something strange and uneasy that she couldn’t identify.
When Laura Drennan, the newly appointed college professor, discovers a series of bones while out walking, Maud is finally forced to confront the real possibility that Jess is dead. As the testing by the forensics team begin, the police reopen their investigation
and Maud begins her silent vigil. The bone, a tibia, found in Sycamore’s dry wash appears to be weathered, porous and cracked. Maud is pulled toward a new distraction, anything to avoid the reality that the bones are her daughter's. Did someone murder Jess? Chancellor imbues her story with a subtle sense of unrest as each character embarks on a confessional, explaining how an increasingly confused Jess ended up spelling an end to their own sense of innocence.
The small town of Sycamore is the perfect setting for this family drama. Beyond the “scratched glass sky,” time stretches wide.
The dry wash is an arid place, made up of stones and trees, a ghostly and haunted site that perhaps holds the key to Jess’s fate. Perhaps Maud knew the moment she kneeled in the wash and saw the bone protruding from the earth--and then again when she returned and walked through the dried-up river bed. Chancellor presents a shifting in-between place
where Jess’ s impending adulthood becomes uneasy, where the chance for her happiness comes in a wave and not as a permanent state.
Chancellor paints her novel in shades of glorious Technicolor as she ties Sycamore’s wintry, rain-soaked streets to Jess’s final moments and to Maud’s memories of her daughter, which seem to have cast a permanent shadow over her life. Beyond the heavy feeling of grief and fate, Chancellor transports us deep into the intense mindsets of each of her deftly drawn characters. Be prepared to shed a tear or two. Once you begin this book and
tune to its ebb and flow, you will not be able to abandon the characters until the very end, despite the story’s tragic outcome.