More of a character study highlighting the social and economic upheavals plaguing a community in a suburb of Detroit in the 1950’s, Roy’s thriller is both provocative and opaque. She unfolds a deeply disturbing tale that cuts to the heart of the damage done to families who try to invest their lives in a neighborhood terrorized by violent murder. Wrapping her story up in a haze of secrets and denial, Roy focuses on two mysteries: the whereabouts of missing girl Elizabeth Symanski, and the murder of a black prostitute in an alley behind Alder Avenue, the main thoroughfare recently frequented by “coloreds.”
While the mysteries are important aspects of the story (and the answers are revealed by the end of the book), Roy’s tale chiefly prioritizes character development, most embodied in three woman: Julia, her best friend Grace, and their neighbor Malina Herze, who organizes the annual bake sale for the St. Alban’s Charitable Ventures Committee. At their monthly gathering, Malina doles out stern warnings to the dozen ladies including a heavily pregnant Grace, informing them that the colored woman found in the alley bordering the factory was indeed bashed on the side of the head.
The news gets the committee ladies whispering about whose husband might be the guilty party, but because the victim is black, the crime blows over with the police hardly bothering to ask any questions. In a landscape where factories stand empty (“rotting shells surrounded by boarded-up restaurants and taverns) and the Filmore Apartments are filling up with undesirables, the murder of the black woman and Elizabeth’s disappearance add to the sense of rot and decay.
While there are no obvious suspects, Julia is aware of a voyeur who has been watching the movements of the women from a secret lair. She anxiously tries to protect her two nieces, who are visiting her and her husband for the summer. Jealous of her friend Grace, Julia painfully remembers baby Maryanne and is convinced that Bill did something to Maryanne the night she died. As Bill joins the other husbands to organize search parties for the missing woman, the wives shop on Alder Avenue, Julia becoming increasingly paranoid and insecure toward those around her.
This is a dark tale of a community running aground on the rocky shores of economic and personal decline. Six days, and Elizabeth is still missing; Julia fights with her imagination as she tries to escape the visions of Elizabeth alone, frightened, dying or dead. At night outside her window, another picture takes shape: streams of yellow thrown from flashlights drifting back and forth across the lawn. Broad-shouldered shadows glide past while voices call out to Elizabeth, mostly men’s voices, “deep and scratchy.”
Roy unfolds her demographic in short, sharp images as Grace fights the same visions plaguing Julia, visions that spring from memories of the night men came for her. This terrible brutality reaches beyond Elizabeth’s shocking disappearance into the very heart of the investigation itself. Grace finds herself balancing her mother’s urge to coverup her daughter’s violation with her own need to tell James about the night in the garage, an incident exacerbated by emotions triggered by the dead black woman.
Balancing a community’s state of crisis, the stain visited on a neighborhood by mistrust, entrenched racism, catastrophe, and the unfolding conflict between Marina and her husband and between Grace and Julia, Roy writes a nuanced, thought-provoking tale. Although I liked the novel, in the end I found it hard to pull for any of these women. We get the sense that, no matter what, they can’t help being blinded by their own prejudices and fears.