In a small town called Dundee on the coast of Maine, an old woman named Hannah Gray begins her story: "Somebody said 'true love is like ghosts, which everyone talks about and few have seen.' I've seen both and I don't know how to tell you which is worse." Hannah has decided, finally, to leave a record of the passionate and anguished long-ago summer in Dundee when she met Conary Crocker, the town bad boy and love of her life. This spare, piercing, and unforgettable novel bridges two centuries and two intense love stories as Hannah and Conary's fate is interwoven with the tale of a marriage that took place in Dundee a hundred years earlier.
It's a rare author who can combine a humdinger of a ghost tale with a haunting story of young love, and do so with literary grace and finesse. Gutcheon does just that and she acquits herself beautifully in this poignant novel. What's more, she adroitly manages alternating narratives, set a century apart, raising the level of suspense as the characters in each period approach the cusp on which a life turns, in parallel events that will irrevocably define the future for all of them. The novel is essentially two stories of doomed love and its consequences for future generations. Narrator Hannah Gray is an elderly widow when she relates the circumstances of the summer when she fell in love with Conary Crocker, a charming young man from a poor family in Dundee on the coast of Maine. Brought to Dundee from Boston during the Depression by her abusive stepmother, Hannah learns about the fate of distant ancestral relatives of hers and Conary's, who lived on now-deserted Beal Island in the mid 1800s. The reader learns the horrifying details in the same small increments that Hannah does, via the alternating point of view of Claris Osgood, who in 1858 defies her parents and marries taciturn Danial Haskell, moving with him to the island where, too late, she discovers her new husband's narrow-minded religious fundamentalism and corrosively mean personality. The union, which produces two children, becomes increasingly rancorous and will end in murder. Meanwhile, in her own time, Hannah is terrified by the appearances of a wildly sobbing ghost with "gruesome burning eyes," who exudes almost palpable hatred. Tantalizing clues about the identity of the macabre specter, and the eventual tragedy it causes, hum through the narrative like a racing pulse. Gutcheon adds depth and texture through lovely descriptions of the Maine coast and the authentic vernacular of its residents, whom she depicts with real knowledge of life in a seacoast community. Her sophisticated prose and narrative skill mark this novel, her sixth (after Five Fortunes), as a breakthrough to a wide readership.