“The thing about houses: they chose their owners, not the other way around. And this house had chosen them.”
Elizabeth Brundage’s fourth novel All Things Cease to Appear begins with a horrendous murder that takes place in the 70s. Catherine Clare, the wife of an art history professor, is found murdered in her Upper New York remote countryside family home. She’s been killed with an axe, and her husband, George, who soon becomes the main suspect, claims she was still alive when he left that morning. Did he murder his wife? If not, who committed this crime? What did the child, Franny, left alone with the corpse of her mother for the entire day, witness? In some ways the locals aren’t surprised that something awful happened in the remote farmhouse once owned by the ill-fated Hale family. The house, still full of the belongings of the previous owners, was neglected for years until George bought it at auction for a rock-bottom price. This is a house full of the echoes of tragedy, and according to Catherine, it’s haunted by the presence of Elly, a woman who died there.
There was something odd about the house. A chill flourished in some rooms and an odor seeped up from the cellar, the rotting carcasses of trapped mice. Even in gentle summer, when the world outside was singing its bright song, an oppressive gloom prevailed, as if the whole house had been covered, like a birdcage, with velvet cloth.
The book’s first chapter is simply amazing, and then the novel shifts focus from George and the crime back to the past as Brundage introduces various characters who all have some part to play in this cerebral tale of murder, adultery, lies and deceit. Each character is part of Brundage’s mosaic, so we see Justine, a woman who works with George, George’s boss, a man who’s fascinated by the work of Swedenborg, Mary Lawton, the real estate agent who sold the farm to the Clares, her husband, the local sheriff who struggles to solve the murder, Willis, a young unstable woman whose presence triggers tragedy, and the three Hale boys who find excuses to hang around the Clare home.
Even though we know almost immediately that Catherine has been murdered, the step back in time moving forwards towards her death is fraught with tension and eerie suspense. There’s a poignancy as the days draw closer to the date of Catherine’s murder, accompanied by a sense of powerlessness that we cannot prevent the crime.
The day was overcast, the field thick with fog. She stepped outside and walked out into the field, and the humid air clung to her. She stood there alone in the middle of it. She could feel her outlines blurring, as if she could fade into the opaque landscape and disappear.
While this is the story of a murder, it’s also the story of how a community failed to help Catherine and the impact of the murder on various characters. This is an impoverished area, a farming community hit hard by economic realities. The Clares are outsiders who don’t fit in with the locals, and this seals Catherine’s tragic isolation.
Elizabeth Brundage weaves a well-crafted and credible story around a murder while boldly defying genre expectations. Her interest here is the moral complexities of the situation, how violence impacts a community, a family, an individual, and in this tale we have two families damaged by violence: the Hales and the Clares. The novel’s length allows a satisfactory exploration of all the characters involved and the roles they play in Catherine’s murder, so we see the impact of the crime on the sheriff:
Over the years he’s seen just about everything–every twisted machination, most ill-conceived or plain stupid–but you get to the point, you get to the fucking point where you don’t want to see it any more.
And Willis trained to detect sociopaths, but who is nonetheless vulnerable to one. Her moral compass is scrambled thanks to her father’s career as a top defense attorney in New York:
In his boxy suit and shined shoes he meandered over to the stand like a man approaching a slutty woman in a bar, but he’s ask his questions with the voice of a priest. It didn’t matter what they were thinking now, because he knew the defendant and eventually the jury would too.
Her father could make you think he understood you, even if you’d done things that bordered on the surreal. Somehow, he justified it in his mind that, under certain circumstances, you could be driven to do anything.
If you take a look at Goodreads, you will see that readers are sharply divided. Some people loved the book and others found it meandering. Some of the reason for the diverse opinions may reside in readers’ expectations. This is not a past-paced crime book–rather this is literature that wraps itself around a murder. I’ve read Elizabeth Brundage’s other novels: The Doctor’s Wife, Someone Else’s Child (I didn’t care for A Stranger Like You) so I knew that this wasn’t going to be just a crime novel. This is a complex novel centered on a crime, heavy on character, an exploration of the sociopathic mind and with hints of the supernatural. I have a few minor quibbles with some details of the ending, but overall, I really enjoyed this.
(there is one scene of animal cruelty but it is portrayed as such)