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The Distant Dead: A Novel Hardcover – June 9, 2020
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From the Publisher
"Powerful...a breathtaking read, with flawed and authentic characters who hit so close to home that at times it is impossible not to root for them." -- San Francisco Chronicle
"With her usual blend of inventive storytelling and gorgeous prose, Heather Young delivers big themes and a poignant coming-of-age story in this complex, page-turning mystery/thriller. Resonant and relevant, The Distant Dead kept me reading late at night, and the characters followed me around during the day, especially a precocious and unusual sixth-grade boy named Absalom who is hard to forget. As a fan of Young’s debut, The Lost Girls, I found myself swept into another beautifully-crafted story that’s even more suspenseful, at times more terrifying, and ultimately just as surprising. The Distant Dead is not to be missed." -- James McLaughlin, author of Bearskin
"A story that begins with a horrific discovery and expands to explore the weight of familial obligation, the far-reaching devastation of drug addiction and the ways in which guilt and boredom can curdle into something much more sinister...[Young's] language is poetic, and her contemplation of the corrosiveness of suppressed emotion is both sympathetic and impatient: When will people learn?" -- BookPage (starred review)
"Bright, flawless writing, wonderful characters, and a sense of pacing that ratchets up the tension—what more could you want from a thriller? I loved this book. I bet you will too." -- Rene Denfeld, bestselling author of The Child Finder and The Butterfly Girl
“Stunning … An ideal recommendation for fans of Kate Atkinson.” -- Booklist (starred review)
"[THE DISTANT DEAD] is at heart about the timelessness of human curiosity, the eternal possibility of forgiveness, and the everyday miracle of survival. Electrifying, ambitious, and crushingly beautiful." -- Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"Engrossing...an enjoyable character-driven murder mystery that is emotionally poignant and empathetic." -- Mystery Scene
"This emotionally resonant saga, firmly rooted in the high desert hills, will keep readers turning the pages." -- Publishers Weekly
About the Author
- Publisher : William Morrow (June 9, 2020)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 352 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0062690817
- ISBN-13 : 978-0062690814
- Item Weight : 1.15 pounds
- Dimensions : 6 x 1.13 x 9 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #215,143 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
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Sometimes the best way to review a book is to review the way it impressed itself upon you. For the first two-thirds of THE DISTANT DEAD, I felt underwhelmed, a little impatient. I wandered away to other books for brief spells but always found myself coming back, impressed almost on a subconscious level with some unidentifiable secret sauce in the slow-burn, subtle storytelling.
Then, at the two-thirds point, came a plot twist that felt like a percussive chunking in my mind, a perfect collision of perfectly oiled gear cogs that hummed and thrummed to life in a higher gear. What felt like a loose assemblage of characters in search of connection suddenly came together with a crisp snap; everything that felt loose suddenly felt tight, together, in a perfectly timed collision of circumstance and motivation and thrillingly awful plausibility and dark inevitability. The story kept shifting from there into higher gears, plot pedal sinking somewhere close to the metal, toward a headlong crash of characters in the firelit darkness of a high-desert cave far off the beaten track in Next To Nowhere, Nevada, and I had no idea who would survive the crunch of mind and metal and mettle. Not even an overly stagy, overly speechy, Grand Guignol climax could cool the churn of coursing blood in my brain and body as I turned each page.
The plot is hard to describe, because this is a true twisty thriller than is driven with near-perfect plausibility by its seemingly ordinary but nothing-of-the-sort characters: Absalom "Sal" Prentiss, a sixth-grader who lost his mother to heroin and has been taken in by two hard-bitten uncles wedded beyond reason to the waste of land on which the family has scrabbled for generations; Adam Merkel, a new math teacher in town who somehow, through the haze of his haunted eyes, sees Sal clearly and takes a shine to the boy; Nora Wheaton, a teacher desperate to escape her small town but chained to it by family; and a host of others. All are not all they seem to be, and they seem to be what they are only because it's easier that way for a small town to label them a certain way, usually according to a family name or lack of a familiar one, and feel comfortable with those reductive labels so they can call it good. I think that's what kept me around for those deceptively low-key early chapters; I'm from a small town myself and know how you can never feel comfortable in one until the small town decides it can feel comfortable with you — and that's by putting you in a box, metaphorically if not literally.
All of which is the long way of saying that I loved THE DISTANT DEAD, loved the canny way Heather Young lay in the weeds and set me up one way before taking me down the path I should have seen along had I not wanted to see a path perhaps more conspicuous and comfortable with the conventional tropes of the thriller genre — which is entirely on me for deceiving myself the way many of the novel's characters wish they could. She didn't jerk me around — she did something far more clever: she gave me room to jerk myself around, to abuse myself with my own expectations and preconceptions. That's much harder to do than it seems. I have the feeling there are depths and layers, like the bones in that cave, that have yet to fully reveal themselves to me, and I suspect THE DISTANT DEAD is the rare thriller that will hold up well upon repeated readings.
The book begins with Nora wondering why Adam Merkel, her math-teacher colleague and a recent arrival in town, is not at work. Within hours she learns that Adam burned to death on a hilltop the day before, and his body was discovered by Sal on his morning walk to the school-bus stop. Who has killed Adam? And what was the former University of Nevada professor doing teaching middle-school math in their small town anyway?
Nora already knows that Sal Prentiss ate lunch with his math teacher every day and that Adam often gave Sal a ride back to his uncles’ isolated house. As she gets to know the boy, even bringing him home with her to meet her alcoholic father, Nora realizes how likeable and intelligent he is—but also how scared. Sal knows more about Adam’s death than he’s telling, she decides.
Yes, he does, and what he knows is disclosed to us chapter by chapter in flashbacks, as we watch Sal meet Adam on the math teacher’s first day in the classroom and grow close to him. Nora, driven by her concern for Sal and her sadness over Adam’s death, investigates the man’s past, and Jake, also worried about Sal, tries to find out more about the boy’s uncles. Everything we need to know in order to understand why and how Adam died is shown to us from different viewpoints, and the process gives us moving insights into each of the book’s protagonists in turn. We come to know the reasons Adam died and each person who was involved in his death, and yet we are still surprised at the way the tragedy slowly plays itself out to its end.
This is a dark book. Some of its characters are obsessed, others are dangerously self-deluded, and there are dire examples of selfishness, manipulation and cruelty. But it’s also a story about atonement and redemption. A Gothic novel uses darkness coyly, to entertain and titillate. This novel uses it straightforwardly, almost apologetically, as if to say, “Yes, these people have done terrible things, but they have their reasons, and it’s our job, as writer and reader, to try to understand and perhaps pity them, even if we can’t forgive them.”
In the center of it all is Sal Prentiss. Perhaps he is too wise and sensitive to be completely realistic, but he still works within the novel as a superbly drawn character, providing the compassionate eyes through which we see each damaged person in this story. His imagination can encompass a world in which the good in everyone is endlessly doing battle with evil—and sometimes even winning. He is not a figure that you’ll easily forget upon finishing this excellent mystery.