It has taken me a while to write this review, in part because I needed some space from reading the book before I felt I could begin (and also in part because spring break is over, but my new-found love of Breath of the Wild is just starting). In between searching for shrines and attempting to tame wild horses, I finished this haunting novel. Right after finishing this book, I watched Undercurrent, about the murder of journalist Kim Wallis. And here in my home state, the ex-governor running for Senate is still likely leading the pack of Republican candidates, despite the fact that he has been publicly and credibly accused of abusing multiple people, including his wife and children. We all watched a Supreme Court then-nominee respond like a toddler when faced with the the impact of his actions – and then we watched as he ascended to a position of power that will last his natural lifetime. I don’t need to go on, but I absolutely could. What I’m saying is, this book, combined with this world, is a gut punch, and it’s best to be prepared for that going in (and maybe DON’T pair this book with HBO documentaries).
Kukafka centers the book on a serial killer who is about to be executed. The story alternates in time and perspective – counting down the hours towards execution for Ansel Packer, while moving forward through Ansel Packer’s life via the lens of several women over time. While the story hinges around Ansel himself, who is presented honestly and empathetically, we are treated to the inner life of three women in his orbit – his mother, the sister of a woman close to him, and a homicide detective with a complex relationship to Ansel.
One primary concern for both Ansel and the book as a whole is the extent to which we (humans) can embody both good and evil. Kukafka has done a wonderful job writing Ansel as a sympathetic character – mostly because of what we, the omniscient reader, know what he lacks. Ansel has been trying to develop a Theory of good and evil that, from his perspective, is shocking and revelatory. He thinks he is generally smarter than others (especially women) and because he feels he is a masterful manipulator (he’s presented here as a sort of Ted Bundy figure, a man who is generally considered to be good looking and charming) he feels that he is above consequences for his actions. But we the reader see more than his limited view – we know that he murdered women, that there are cracks in his charm. We know that his philosophy is not a revelation but a stale reiteration of Philosophy 101 concepts. We embody both good and evil – life is complicated. We know this. Ansel makes the mistake of getting caught up in that single train of thought, without moving beyond to consider what he could do to actually be “better”, as he is always promising he will be. His circumstances also conspire to limit his choices – but he also had a hand in shaping those circumstances. One consequence of our actions, now and far into the future, are choices. But the choices of others are equally limiting to us. We are NOT free from one another. This is haunting for every single character in the novel.
I struggled a bit with rating this book, because my initial reaction was that 3-4 stars, in part because the novel felt … heavy to me. I knew the writing was great, but it honestly took the better part of a week to sit with the ideas before I felt like I could consider them. On reflection, and with a little space, I’m feeling like this novel is closer to a 4-5. So many people who review this book claim it’s a masterpiece, and when I first finished it I wasn’t 100% sold on that. As I’ve thought about it, and considered more of what Kukafka was trying to do, the more I realize how successful she was – her coda at the end was unique AND underlines her perspective with subtly. The book itself was enjoyable to read, if not always in content then at least in consistent quality of writing. I’d give this book 4.5 stars, and I’ll round up here to 5 because I do think this one was ultimately well worth the read.