by Margaret Millar
The southern coast of California during a brutal drought is the setting for this unsettling psychological suspense story shot through with the grim sensation of approaching death. We meet a small New York City family who have sublet a big old house on the coast for the summer. The house, owned by a Mrs Wakefield, looms over a small beach at the base of a cliff and has a creepy unlived-in feeling. At first, we meet nine-year-old Jessie, the daughter of the small family and we see this landscape convincingly through the eyes of a child for whom death is an impossibly distant abstract. Fifteen-year-old Luisa, daughter of the African-American caretaker and his Mexican wife, taunts young Jessie with stories of ghosts and monsters in the nearby woods and gullies. The fact is, however, that there are dark portents.
Mrs Wakefield is selling this house, and has returned to make an inventory of its contents. Her late husband is marked by a stone at the base of a tree on the property, and her child, mentally disabled Billy, has mysteriously met his own end before the opening of the story. The woman drifts through the house over several days, creating a sense of unease among its occupants. She latches on to vibrant young Jessie, the polar opposite of her son, himself permanently abstracted by his disability. At the same time, Jessie's father Mark spurs his wife's jealousy by becoming fascinated with Mrs Wakefield and the romantic air of her grief and disappointment. Indeed, along with the air of death, that disappointment is characteristic of all of the people in this somewhat claustrophobic story. How did Mr Wakefield die? What really happened to Billy? How much of a threat is Mrs Wakefield to young Jessie? How much of a threat is she to the rocky marriage of Mark and Evelyn? There are hints of madness remeniscent of Henry James's Turn of the Screw. There is vague but discernable mystery, but more a sense of psychological urgency. Some scenes play as melodramatically implausible. Others display an earthy tragedy. Of her several characters, Millar seems to best evoke the grounded personalities of the young girls and their combined sense of grim anticipation and hope for something brighter in their futures. The others, though, seem tangled up in their emotional baggage; not the most fun bunch of characters to be around. The dried out landscape of drought-ridden California is, of course, a metaphor for a lot of this. The book, first published in 1949, has its dramatic excesses. But stick around for its moments of down-to-earth awareness of nature and of life. There is both more and less here than one expects from a novel of suspense.
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See Also: [The Moving Target, by Ross Macdonald]
[Other Mystery and Suspense Books]
[Other Books by Women Authors]
[Other Books in or about California]