I love those books you just happen upon … books about which you’ve never read a review written by someone you’ve never heard of (or of whom you’ve never heard … that old high school English teacher in my head just won’t go away). Of course I love them only when they’re really good … what a delicious surprise to a head like mine stuffed with all kinds of literary nonsense to stumble upon a gem.
Melanie Finn’s The Underneath is just such a book. Although her second novel, The Gloaming, set in East Africa, got some recognition, I missed it entirely. Finn, born in Kenya, moved to the US when she was 11 and has lived all over the world. That worldliness is evident in her writing, not in a show-offy way, but in a multi-layered perspective that can only come from someone who’s called many places home.
The Underneath is set in rural Vermont where Kay, a former journalist stationed mainly in Africa, has come with her filmmaker husband and two children to spend the summer and detox from the intensity of their professional lives. Intense is an understatement for the most recent part of her career, spent pursuing the genocidal leader of child soldiers. Extreme risk, personal and professional, is part of her daily diet.
The Vermont in which she and her family spend the summer is far from idyllic … strung-out junkies and corrupt loggers are as much a part of the landscape as quaint cottages and fishing holes. When Kate’s husband is called away to work, she’s alone with the kids and things get weird fast. As a born sleuth who thrives on danger, a woman unaccustomed to the often banal reality of motherhood, Kay is naturally sucked in to the mystery at the center of the novel.
There’s a sub-plot involving a drug-dealing logger who was badly abused as a child and his effort to save another child from a fate like his that had me rooting for him to succeed, despite his highly questionable means of achieving his ends. Like Kay, he’s a complex character, encompassing both good and evil.
Finn is a terrific, psychologically astute writer, attuned to the nuances of the female psyche. If you’re looking for a deeply original literary thriller, The Underneath is for you.