“If you live long enough there’s no line that you won’t cross.”
Tracy Manaster’s powerful novel, The Done Thing, examines the actions of a retired orthodontist, Lida Stearl, whose sister, Barbra, was murdered almost two decades earlier. The killer, Barbra’s husband, Clarence Lusk, is sitting on Death Row in Arizona while his appeals run out. In the aftermath of the crime, which left Barbra, her lover and a young policeman dead, Lida raised Pamela, Clarence and Barbra’s child. But now Lida is a widow, and Pamela is married. Largely left to her own devices, Lida stumbles across a website for prisoners who are seeking penpals, and here Lida finds Clarence, admitting his boredom and loneliness, seeking correspondence. For Lida, who has tried to visit Clarence once a year only to be refused, a correspondence is just too tempting an opportunity. She rents a PO box, assumes a fake name, pretends to be a young flirtatious girl, and begins a correspondence….
Lida is admirable in many ways; she’s had a successful career, a happy marriage, and she’s shelved her own desires for motherhood in order to raise Pamela, but she’s also deeply twisted when it comes to the subject of Clarence Lusk, and yet who can blame her? When it comes to Clarence, Lida is completely obsessed; it’s an unhealthy thing to indulge, yet she does–sometimes in ways that are downright nasty. Here’s how the book opens, brilliantly, showing us both Lida’s obsession and her train of thoughts.
The State of Arizona conducted her executions at dawn and had for several years, a policy change from midnight for which no explanation had been offered. I liked to keep abreast of such things. I had the Daily Star delivered to my St. Louis home, days late and at not small cost. For nearly two decades I’d collected clippings and taken notes on legal pads. I ran calculations and so I knew: forty-eight percent of inmates took breakfast as their final meals. Maybe they sought grounding, one last moment in step with the breakfasting rest of the world. The eggs, though, threw me. Thirty-four percent of prisoners-even some slated for electrocution-demanded fried eggs.
Lida should, of course, walk away from the penpal scenario for her peace of mind alone, but she doesn’t; she embraces the opportunity to suck Clarence in to a fake relationship. Lida’s husband used to keep her grounded and “knew there was no peace to be had from a certain vein of thought,” but Lida is worried that Pamela may have a lover (like her mother) or even be in touch with her father. Lida has “waited for eighteen years and four appeals” to see Clarence exit this world, but “Clarence lingered, unshakeable as the phantom weight a watch leaves on a naked wrist.” She even has special “execution suits” ready for the Big Day, and the window opened through the penpal relationship allows Lida a tempting glimpse into Clarence’s inner life.
It wasn’t actually peace I wanted. I wanted to be sure Clarence Lusk wouldn’t find any.
There are some wonderful secondary characters here including Pamela, who has effectively lost both parents, and who becomes the staging ground for emotional ownership. Then there’s Pamela’s in-laws, the boisterously happy Claverie clan. Finally there’s Marjorie Lusk, Clarence’s mother, “funneling her retirement into his defense.” A small part of the novel details letters back and forth between Clarence and Lida aka Maisie, and since Lida is our first person narrator, a great deal of her thoughts are directed towards Clarence.
I loved this novel–not just for its unique approach, and for the way the author showed another way of tackling the topic of crime, but also for the way the author created such horribly flawed human beings. The novel explores the idea that it is impossible to tell what Lida would have been like if this crime hadn’t hijacked her life and stained her personality. There’s definitely a before-and-after for Lida who is left to wonder how Barbra might have aged, what she might have achieved. Lida does some very nasty things in the book, but these acts are hand-in-glove with the murder of her sister, and this is one of the marvellous aspects of this book: I asked myself how I would act under the circumstances.
I hadn’t yet learned to think more terrible things.
The book’s blurb says: “As letters pass steadily between Lida and Clarence, her preoccupation with his crime and its echoes intensifies, and she finds that crossing one line makes the ones that follow all the more tempting to cross.” That’s a perfect quote, and I can’t do better so I’m including it here. While this is a story of one woman’s obsession, the book opens into much more complicated avenues which include notions of justice, the irrevocable nature of murder, the death penalty, and forgiveness. And lest you yawn at some of those topics, I’ll add that the novel is not preachy and does not take definite positions–the plot is far too subtle for that. This is a beautiful, mature examination of some of our darkest behaviours, and the plot wisely doesn’t step into the muddy waters of motive, repentance and justification, and instead allows the reader to chew over the plot without authorial heavy-handedness. Murderer and victim(s) are forever linked together, and in The Done Thing, Tracy Manaster explores the terrible damage incurred in an act of violence.
I liked Tracy Manaster’s first novel, You Could be Home By Now, but The Done Thing is unique and thought-provoking. It’s only January, and The Done Thing is already a candidate for my best-of-2017 list.