Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Cates has plenty of experience in holding the shitty end of life’s stick. Her childhood was scarred with rejection and loss and , talking of loss, the sudden death of her son the previous summer has proved to her that while fate can take, it can also take some more. But now, circumstances have partnered her in a bewildering kind of dance; she has given up her job as a journalist on a sleek New York magazine; she has a new partner, a rough and tumble Mr Nice Guy from Sidalie, Texas, who, in addition to running a very successful landscaping firm, is ridiculously rich. Charlie is also 32 weeks pregnant, albeit accidentally, with a baby daughter for her and Noah Palmer.
Then, as Noah is trying to tempt Charlie into marrying him, and agree to their moving into a luxurious new home, comes the ‘phone call which triggers the enthralling next chapter in Charlie’s life. She takes a call from a distant aunt, and the news is that Charlie’s estranged mother Donna, and her half sister Jasmine, have been found shot dead in Jasmine’s Tucson apartment. There is another complication. Jasmine’s daughter Micky was also in the apartment but in another room. She is shaken, but very much alive, and has been taken into protective care.
So, Charlie and Noah head off to Arizona to try to make sense of the shattered family that Charlie hardly knew she still had. They meet, in no particular order, the strangely savant Micky, Donna’s lesbian lover, Jasmine’s cop boyfriend, and an apparently saintly woman who runs a refuge for battered women. What follows is a brilliantly plotted journey into the murky world of USA-Mexican social politics and the disturbing lengths which people will go to in order to have children, when nature has ordained that it simply ain’t gonna happen.
For the book to burn on full heat, you have to accept that Charlie Cates is, to an extent, governed by what could be dreams, or maybe fleeting out-of-body experiences. Charlie confides:
“My dreams are not like other people’s. They show me things.”
She has a terrifying recurring nightmare which involves her – and her unborn daughter – being shot dead while taking a shower. At other times she meets, on this spectral level, other key characters in the story. Some of them are alive, but some of them are dead. Personally, I have no problem with this. Two of my favourite writers, John Connolly with his doom laden PI Charlie Parker, and Phil Rickman with his delightful-but-slightly-scary Merrily Watkins, both take thrilling liberties with our working hypothesis that The Dead are dead and The Living are living.
Hester Young writes like an angel, even if that celestial being has a distinctly dark tinge to its wings. There are sharp observations on some of the absurdities of the American way of life. This is a Texan realtor (estate agent to us Brits):
“Brandi Babcock may possess the name of a porn star, but she has the body of a butternut squash, a solid top that flares out into an epically large backside.”
The greatest strength of the book is the magical spell Hester Young (right) casts as she links the reader to Charlie Cates. As a cynical, autumnal English male, with a downbeat view of life and the tricks it can play, I am not the obvious candidate to be entranced by a slightly manic, conflicted and complex American female journalist, but by the time the novel reached its gripping conclusion in the Arizona desert, I was ready to crawl over broken glass to make sure that Charlie survived with body and soul intact. Hester Young slaps a winning hand down on the green baize table – dry humour, suspense, atmosphere, superb characterisation – and deservedly rakes in all the chips.