The opening scene of Grist Mill Road is harrowing, twelve-year-old Patrick watches out of sight as his fourteen-year-old best friend Matthew shoots thirteen-old Hannah whom he has tied to a tree forty-nine times with a B.B. gun. I emphasize their ages because there are significant differences between twelve and fourteen, especially when Patrick is a young twelve and Matthew is an old fourteen.
As the contemporary narrative opens, Patrick and Hannah are married. Patrick has just lost his job and is struggling to find another. He is also haunted by guilt for failing to stop the shooting, an irrational guilt as it’s unlikely he could have succeeded. Moreover, he confronted Matthew, was attacked by him, feared Matthew would kill him, played dead to survive, then got up, his head bleeding from a massive blow, untied and brought Hannah to safety and saved her life. Still, his failure to say something during the shooting feels like a failure, though if he had, Matthew might have shot him, too. Hannah has no idea that Patrick witnessed the shooting and refusing to discuss what happened, gives Patrick no opportunity to tell her. Being weak-willed and deferential, he keeps his secret and feels more guilt.
They might have still managed to muddle through life more or less successfully even though Patrick loses his job and has fixated on the boss who fired him and falls into depression. But then Matthew comes back into their lives and all hell breaks loose.
Told through narratives by each of the three principals, Grist Mill Road is suspenseful and interesting on many levels. The writing is descriptive, in particular in creating a sense of place in the Finger Lakes, describing the land and how it came to be. The natural history is the best part of the book for me.
In many ways, Grist Mill Road is a successful thriller. The prose is better than competent, sometimes extraordinary. The plot is new and intriguing. It considers important themes about trust, empathy, and responsibility, but it took everything to keep from throwing it across the room in disgust. There are a couple reasons for this. There are three narratives, those of the men are fully realized and complex. Hannah’s is shallow and often driven more by her cop friend than her. Hannah seems to have no agency at all. She is only half-realized.
More seriously, Matthew shot Hannah forty-nine times and yet, we are told we “don’t know what she did” and asked to hold her partially culpable for his action. So what exactly could someone do or say that would inspire the cold-blooded forty-nine separate shots. Shooting her once? Hitting her? That says impulse and rage. Forty-nine is cold-blooded and vicious. It is considered. No, there’s no “but she” about it and that we are asked to “but she” a thirteen year old girl to forgive shooting her forty-nine times is appalling. I don’t mind being asked to feel empathy for Matthew. I feel empathy. I understand the pain he might have felt. Feeling empathy for him should never require that I accept the culpability of his victim. I found it completely offensive to be asked.
I received an e-galley of Grist Mill Road from the publisher through NetGalley.
- Grist Mill Road at Macmillan | Picador
- Christopher J. Yates