5 stars out of 5
Mesmerizing! But since the book seriously flirts with the paranormal - which I didn't realize going in - I'm both surprised that I liked it at all and astounded that I absolutely loved it. Fact is, if this one doesn't make the best-seller list, I'll consider it a travesty.
Most chapters are named for various characters, a technique that usually doesn't work well for me, mostly because at my age I tend to forget who's who rather easily. It didn't matter a whit here, though - testimony, I think, to the author's ability to make each character unique and memorable as well as leave written breadcrumbs, if you will, that make the whole thing easy to follow. Early on, a 10-year-old boy named Miles Sandeski watches as his mother is murdered - a crime for which his father is charged. Miles knows better, but he's so young, and the story he tells so absurd, that no one believes him.
His father had, however, told his young son of plans he'd hidden for an ultra-dangerous secret machine that was never built - thought to have been stolen from the workshop of Thomas Edison. Miles found the plans and managed to heed his late father's warning until he was a grown man - a teacher, musician, inventor, husband to wife Lily and father of two children: A son Errol and younger daughter Eva.
The inventor in Miles takes over his better judgment, and he builds the machine in the family's shed in back of their house on the river. Then one day, the unthinkable happens: Miles drowns in a flash flood, leaving Eva and her mother homeless. Eva, who nearly drowned herself, never really believes her mother's claim that the machine is responsible for her father's death.
Everything from that day forward is considered "After the Flood," and because Eva's mother insists someone known as "Snake Eyes" is out to kill them, she and Eva take to the shadowy streets below the bridges of thriving Ashford, Vermont. Now called Necco (after her favorite candy as a child), Eva and Lily live in an underworld populated by "fire eaters," or women who live off the grid at the river's edge and are known for inhaling herbs called the "devil's snuff."
Then suddenly, Lily dies - an apparent suicide - forcing Necco to survive on the streets any way she can. Along the way she finds a boyfriend; just as he is about to reveal what could be clues to her past, he's murdered in the junk car in which they've been living. Now alone, she meets Theo, a talented high school senior who owes a potload of money to a man willing to kill to get it back, and Pru, a seriously overweight lady who serves up food in a school cafeteria by day and puts a whole new spin on night life.
As these intriguing but incongruous characters come together in a tenuous, I'll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine sort of relationship, so do details of Eva's life Before the Flood. Several twists and turns later, Eva (and readers) finally learn what really happened. All I can say without giving away too much is this: If you start this book, get cozy for at least the last hour or so - from then on, you won't be able to put it down.
Many thanks to the publisher, via NetGalley, for the opportunity to read an advance review copy.
Burntown by Jennifer McMahon (Doubleday, April 2017); 304 pp.