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[This review contains spoilers.] Bryn Chancellor's debut novel explores wrongdoing, bad mistakes, tragedy, remorse and forgiveness. About 29 years previously, Jess Winters, 16, had been dragged to live in small town Arizona, a place called Sycamore. Her mother is depressed after her divorce, working for the post office. We find early on that Jess disappears, and the book has narrators from different perspectives telling what happened. There's her mother, a new faculty member at the local college, Jess's best friend, the friend's family, a boyfriend, other high school friends and acquaintances, and some incidental characters. It's not quite kaleidoscopic, because the central characters do get much more attention than the others, but it's a strikingly diverse set. It goes back in time, to the time when Jess arrived in town, to the time of when she disappeared. Then it comes to the present, when some bones have been discovered, and the local community relives the trauma of the disappearance. The writing is precise and descriptive, giving us a clear picture of the area.
Sycamore is a sad book, full of mourning, regret, and anger. Nearly every character is in a place of great unhappiness. Jess's mother Maude is probably the saddest of them all, with failures in her marriage, failures as a mother, and then the terrible loss of her daughter. She spends her time looking over Jess's notebooks and thinking about the past. She often seems a pathetic figure, but as the story unfolds, we eventually see her strength.
It's only half way through the book, 336 pages long and 12 hours in the strong audiobook performance, that we really find out what preceded her disappearance. It turns out that she became involved with the Adam father of her best friend Danny. As they emphasized at the time, "nothing happened," meaning that they never got physical together, but they planned to and wanted it. They all the time knew it was wrong and dangerous, but they were drawn to each other for different reasons. In fact, he was more drawn to her, while her interest was shorter and more hesitant. It takes even longer to come to some understanding of what drew Adam and Jess together, and his reflections on what drove him to take a risk that would destroy his family. It's not so clear it's possible to reconcile his belief that Adam loves his family with his declaration of love for Jess. Does he have to be mistaken about his own emotions? And can anyone in his family ever forgive him, especially after Jess has disappeared. There is also the anger of Danny and her mother for Jess, which is overwhelming, and there's even a possibility that one of them killed her. While her mother blames Adam, it's a complicated question who really deserves blame, if anyone. Through presenting different perspectives, Chancellor does not endorse any of them, but explores the moral terrain with sophistication.
There are issues of class and ethnicity here too. Several of the characters are Hispanic, and have a different set of concerns. One of the men in town was a classmate of Jess, but he had been poor and their friendship had been difficult to maintain because they moved in such different circles.
But primarily this is a book about family bonds and the emotions of terrible disruption. With the long time span between the disappearance and the discovery of human remains, the story examines the evolution of the aftermath. While the number of narrators seems almost excessive and showy, the writing is done so well it still works. Sycamore is a very impressive debut.
The audiobook is performed by several readers. The mood is always somber but it's an engaging performance.
© 2017 Christian Perring
Christian Perring teaches in NYC.