It’s been too long since I added anything here, too many other things keep getting in the way. So I’m making a concerted effort to catch up a bit this week. To start with, my review of Where by Kit Reed which appeared in Interzone 258, May-June 2015:
If ever a character in a novel ends up spending all or most of a book in a white room, beware. Such featureless settings are usually an anteroom to death or, more often, a metaphor for the inside of the writer’s mind. Whichever it might be, such works are generally well-worn and uninteresting. But Kit Reed doesn’t do well-worn or uninteresting, so when a bunch of her characters are suddenly transported to an all-white landscape we start to wonder what might be at stake here.
The answer is certainly not death, but rather, more subtly and far more interestingly, absence. This is a theme that has become central to her work. Read through the stories gathered in her superb career retrospective collection, The Story Until Now, and you can hardly move for characters who have somehow stepped outside of their lives, absented themselves from the world. In the March 2015 issue of Asimov’s she had a story, ‘Military Secrets’ (reprinted as an addendum to this novel), in which the theme is once again at the heart of the fiction. The narrator is a young schoolgirl whose father is reported missing in action during the Second World War, an absence that has a devastating effect upon her mother, though at first we don’t quite realise how badly the girl herself is affected. At school, she and two others are separated from their classmates and directed onto a bus that is already crowded with grey, silent children. As the bus pulls away through an unseen landscape, we discover that all of the children on the bus have a parent missing in action, but all from different wars.
In terms of plot, character, tone of voice or setting, ‘Military Secrets’ has absolutely no connection with the novel Where, but thematically the two are inextricably linked.
Where is set very precisely on an island in the Outer Carolina Banks. Here David Ribault runs an architecture business in the township of Kraventown, and lives with Merrill Poulnot though he hasn’t quite got around to proposing marriage yet and the relationship is starting to grow a little stale. Then a slick northerner, Rawson Steele, shows up and drives a wedge between the two, and before David can patch up the argument he has to leave for an early-morning meeting with Steele off the island. Except Steele doesn’t show up, and when David tries to return home, he finds it cordoned off. At some point during the morning, every single person in Kraventown disappeared.
Meanwhile, Merrill wakes up, with everyone else from the town, in the middle of a desert settlement. Here, everyone has a house that mirrors the one they had in Kraventown, except that the buildings are all white, the interiors are all white, the furnishings are all white, even the clothes that are provided are all white. White, here, is not a colour in itself but an absence of colour, a reflection of the absence of the people. The place is boiling hot during the day, freezing cold at night, so it doesn’t exactly encourage people to venture out, and indeed most of the townspeople seem content to settle into inertia. Only Merrill and her friend Ray make any attempt to explore, while her younger brother, Ned, shut in with their abusive and possibly mad father, also tries to escape, only to run into Rawson Steele who is, significantly, wearing black.
The narrative shifts between David, desperately trying to get back to Kraven Island though there is nothing to find there; Merrill, trying to make sense of her new surroundings; and Ned, desperate to return to the computer game he was snatched away from. All the main characters are, figuratively as well as literally, absent. David and Merrill have grown distant from each other, and he risks alienating his closest friends in his efforts to return to the island. Merrill fled her abusive father, and abandoned Ned to his fate despite promising to look after him. Ned is more alive in the computer game he plays than in real life. Even the mysterious Rawson Steele is distanced from both his past and his present.
The situation recalls, and the novel specifically references, famous cases like the Marie Celeste and the Roanoke Colony; at one point Steele and Merrill hide out in a cellar filled with historical clothing that seem to come from these and other disappearances. Setting the story in such a contest tells us not to expect any explanation, indeed there’s barely a resolution. It’s not that kind of novel. When it ends there is still much to ponder, much to decide; the story continues, much as life does, with puzzles unsolved and hints that may or may not be hopeful. All we know is that absence from Kraven Island gets right to the heart of the characters in this wonderfully atmospheric novel.