'Until She Comes Home' is timeless drama
Lori Roy mixes lyrical prose, a noir approach and gothic undertones for an urban story set in 1958 about a community pulled apart by racism, fear and image in her second novel. As she did in her 2011 Edgar-winning debut, “Bent Road,” Roy delivers a timeless story that gives shape to those secrets and tragedies from which some people never recover.
Detroit's Adler Avenue is the kind of neighborhood where a woman makes a roast beef dinner twice a month for the widower down the street; where a mentally challenged woman can wander uninvited into a family's unlocked home; where bake sales and luncheons showcase one's social hierarchy. It's also a place where domestic violence hides behind front doors; where couples grow apart because they refuse to communicate; where the death of an infant devalues a woman. And it is a place of fear — fear of the nearby, but unseen, apartment complex where black families live; fear of the broken glass that shows up nightly in the alleys behind the houses; and fear that a failure to keep up appearances leads to gossip.
Henry David Thoreau's quote about lives of quiet desperation was never truer than of the lives lived on this Detroit street in 1958. The residents' panic about civil rights advancement has more to do with their inadequacies, lack of self-awareness and dread of the unknown much like the characters in the classic “Twilight Zone” episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.”
A black woman's murder near the tool-and-die factory where their husbands work causes each woman on Adler Avenue to worry. Then, mentally challenged Elizabeth Symanski disappears when walking to her home after leaving the house of Grace Richardson. Julia Wagner, Grace's best friend, watched while Elizabeth opened the gate outside her house. But Elizabeth never made it inside her house.
Her disappearance galvanizes the neighborhood with the men scouring the area while the women make meals and coffee. Everyone is sure that someone from that apartment complex is to blame.
In addition to bringing out their racial bigotry, the jealousies and angst that have been simmering rise to the surface. Grace is pregnant while Julia cannot get over the death of her infant daughter. Across the street, Malina Herze judges each neighbor's movements, rules the bake sales with a strong hand and worries that her husband's late arrival from work will spark gossip.
“Until She Comes Home” unfolds at a leisurely pace as Roy's psychological study of the neighborhood unfurls. It's a quiet mystery that doesn't rely on car chases or gun battles so that when violence does erupt in one home, the impact is even greater.
As “Until She Comes Home” gracefully moves toward its emotional finale, the subtle storytelling that makes the novel such a rich experience also becomes a bit of a detriment. Two vital plot points are alluded to so subtly that they are easy to miss. Still, there is no mistaking the poignant ending.
Roy, who lives near St. Petersburg, Fla., showed herself to be a talent to watch with “Bent Road.” “Until She Comes Home” again proves her versatility as a novelist.
Oline H. Cogdill is a staff writer for the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale).