By Robley Wilson. (Black Lawrence Press, 307 pages, $18.95.)
Much as in the news of late, sexual behavior — and misbehavior — dominates Florida author Robley Wilson's latest novel. Set in a drought-parched small town in Maine shortly after World War II, it's the story of two very different couples whose lives converge during a weeklong visit by a traveling carnival.
David and Kate are a high school couple. David, the son of a mean-spirited minister, is nearly crippled by sexual obsession. Kate, whose father has not been faithful to her mother, has desires of her own, but is mystified by David's intense, stifled demeanor, and horrified when he finally tries to force himself on her.
Carnival barker Frank and exotic dancer Sharita are a much older, wiser couple who know more than they care to about sexual attraction and power, and far more quietly about love. When these four paths converge in sometimes tender, sometimes violent ways, suspense and drama ensue. The book's title stems both from the title of Sharita's dance show and Czeslaw Milosz's poem "After Paradise," which says, "For a man and a woman. For one plant divided / Into masculine and feminine, which longed for each other."
Though sometimes uneven and predictable, Wilson's American Gothic-flavored novel is also a fascinating foray into the rocky, irresistible terrain of desire and the interactions it inspires.
The Dark Lake
By Sarah Bailey. (Grand Central/Hachette, 380 pages, $26.)
Everybody knows everybody in the sleepy little Australian town of Smithson. So it's especially shocking when the high school drama teacher, once the intoxicating belle of her senior class, is found dead, floating in a lake near the school.
Assigned to the case is Detective Sgt. Gemma Woodstock, a Smithson lifer with so many flaws that it's hard, at first, to embrace her as the protagonist. Gemma was in the same school class as the dead woman, Rosalind Ryan, known as Rose to her drooling admirers and jealous detractors. We soon learn that Gemma was firmly in both camps, having had an obsessive girl crush on Rose until boy trouble came between them. Big boy trouble. The kind you just don't forgive.
While Gemma's job as a cop is to find answers, she herself is keeping secrets from just about everyone in her life. She doesn't disclose to her chief that she had close ties to the victim. She's living with the father of her small child, but she's in a hot affair with her married police partner. And she is still mourning her dead high school sweetheart, Jacob. Similar layers of intrigue pop up between Gemma and many of the town's characters. Life in Smithson is just one big tangled, clandestine mess.
Despite her emotional shortcomings, we come to care for Gemma and yearn to see her work out some of these complex problems — and maybe, in the process, solve the mystery of Rose's murder.
Readers and critics have compared Bailey's taut storytelling to that of Paula Hawkins ("The Girl on the Train") and Gillian Flynn ("Gone Girl"), high praise for this first-time novelist. It's a well-earned analogy, and Bailey telegraphs her intent to build on the Gemma franchise with references to "The Dark Lake (Gemma Woodstock No. 1)." Readers will be the winners if she does.