Jennifer McMahon’s latest, Burntown, feels like a return to her classic form after The Winter People and The Night Sister. It’s an intricate mystery with just the hint of the supernatural around the edges, filled with well-drawn characters and well-crafted scenes. And the writing is compelling as ever.
This time, the supernatural comes in the form of speaking to the dead and having visions. The reality of both, in the narrative, is taken as a matter of course–but the reader can decide how much the characters themselves inform what they believe they see and hear.
The story is this: Eva’s father is professor named Miles, who as a child witnessed his mother’s murder. He is an inventor who builds a machine which can supposedly allow people to talk to the dead, based on plans smuggled out of Thomas Edison’s laboratory. One night there’s a terrible storm and flood, and only Eva and her mother escape alive. But from there the two of them live on the streets. Eva doesn’t remember anything about what happened to her father and her brother, Errol. After her mother’s apparent suicide, Eva is left alone. And then, in a series of violent ways, her mysterious past starts to catch up with her.
Two other characters’ paths cross with Eva’s eventually. There’s Theo, a high school senior who has been selling drugs to please her girlfriend. There’s also Pru, the overweight cafeteria worker at Theo’s school who has dreams of the circus. Those are the primary players, but there’s a web of relationships in this Vermont town. The intricacies of their relationships and the unexpected ways they all connect and influence each other is nicely done.
The setting, a down-on-its-heels mill town in Vermont (those on the street call it “Burntown”), feels very realistic if you’re familiar with broken-down mill towns in northern New England. McMahon sets many of her novels in Vermont, and she’s got a gift for painting a picture of the landscapes and people, both good and bad. There’s a very strong atmosphere and sense of place in her books. In Burntown, you always have the feel of being in a ruin, in the underbelly. Sometimes literally, as when the story focuses on a group of women who live under a bridge and claim to have visions.
I always enjoy the people in McMahon’s books, particularly their motivations. She can craft characters who seem very real, whose desires and impulses and secrets ring true. In this story I particularly enjoyed Pru, with her outsize fantasies and her happy ending.
The ending to Burntown, if not entirely happy, is at least hopeful. It ends with a wonderful image that, to me, summed up the book very well. The climax and reveal of the mystery wasn’t a huge twist or anything, but it rang true. But then, this is more a story of the strange than it is a thriller, so it works.
If you’ve read and enjoyed McMahon’s books in the past, definitely check this out. And I’m always reminded of Sarah Waters when I read McMahon’s work. If you like Burntown, you might enjoy The Night Watch, for the intricate relationships between characters and the setting, London during the Blitz, as well as the compelling writing and great characters.