Secrets are powerful things. And the deep woods around Mattingly, West Virginia, hold so many of them. So do the trio of lead characters who inhabit this hauntingly beautiful novel by Billy Coffey. This is a terrific book — in every sense of that word. It is lyrically written, every detail crafted with care and attention. And it is also a hard, dark story, one that delves into the hidden corners of the human psyche with both wonder and a healthy amount of fear.
Jake and Kate Barnett are lifelong residents of this small town, and they carry the heavy weight of regret every minute of every day. As their high school career wound down to its end, each of them were key players in the death of a classmate, Philip McBride. An outsider and a misfit, Philip’s death had been ruled a suicide. But the Barnetts knew better, and each of them lived under the shadow of that secret for a very long time.
As the events of this fine story begin to pile on top of one another, we meet another key player in that long ago event, Taylor Hathcock, a hermit, a madman and a magician, in his own strange way. Each of these three, and all of the supporting players are lovingly and carefully drawn. This is a town that lures the reader in, populated as it is with such complicated, messed-up, and fascinating people.
I’ve been a fan of Billy Coffey’s for several years now, discovering his blog in early 2011 and enjoying his weekly posts. I reviewed his last novel a year ago. I loved it — and I like this one even better. Coffey’s writing has deepened and expanded; every character rings true, each one carrying just enough quirkiness to be both believable and interesting.
By the end of this story, there is redemption to be found, with a lot of what some might call ‘magical realism’ thrown in. I think what I most enjoyed was the way in which Coffey refuses to let these characters be victims of either their circumstances or of the unseen hand of fate. Instead, we’re allowed to see how wrong choices — bullying, teasing, keeping dangerous secrets — can bring disastrous results, yet none of those results is beyond redemption and transformation.
Redemption in Mattingly begins in small ways, with strange dreams, white butterflies, dandelions. Eventually, there is a visit from beyond the grave, a lot of nail-biting drama (including an ancient bear and a ‘thin place’ in the woods) culminating in the palpable relief that can only be found by telling and knowing the truth.
Along the way, Billy offers some profound insights into the connections between this world and the next. I love this paragraph, from one of Jake’s dream encounters with the long-dead Philip. It comes near the climax of the story:
“. . . remember, our tears are gone on the other side. wiped clean by the very hand of love. Memories haunt you on your side of the veil, Jake, but on mine there is only their beauty. On my side, you see every life is magic. You see you were led even as you thought you wandered, and there was a light even in your darkness. And sometimes you are even given the grace to come back. To set things right.”
And that is what this story is truly about: setting things right. It’s not easy, but it is beautiful to watch. I highly recommend this lovely story and I look forward to meeting more of Mattingly’s inhabitants in years to come.
I was given an advanced readers’ copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. This is that review — click on over to your favorite bookseller and order it now. You will not regret it. Here’s a link to Amazon. There is also a link below to the first 35 pages of this wonderful story. Enjoy!