Monday, February 16, 2015

BEFORE HE FINDS HER, Michael Kardos: Everyone Was Wrong

A dying reporter, a pregnant college student, a 15-year-old news story of a family murder. Michael Kardos brings them together in BEFORE HE FINDS HER and crafts a novel of suspense that depends on the confusions of love and friendship -- and the persistent determination of Melanie Denison, 18 years old and sheltered from almost everything, in small-town West Virginia.

"Everyone knows" how the widely reported murder went, back in 1991: New Jersey long-haul trucker Ramsey Miller killed his wife and little girl and has been on the run ever since. Jealousy, wasn't it? Or was it the long-term craziness that he carried in him, the susceptibility to a science-fiction-style prediction at a moment when some part of him knew he'd lost what mattered most?

Kardos exposes Miller's tortured and tragic thinking, as a sideshow to the main act: Melanie Denison's decision to seek out the truth about her father. Hidden for 15 years with her loving uncle and aunt, within the Witness Protection Program, she's never gone to public events other than school classes; never traveled; even couldn't apply for a library card. But in an abrupt rebellion against the silken ties that bind her and keep her safe, she's found a boyfriend, and she's pregnant. And she can see clearly that everything in her life echoes the theme of hiding, in a math-class moment about the repeated shapes that make up fractals:
"Miss Denison, did you say something?"

She kept looking at the geometric shape, amazed because it was so obvious and true. She hid in her small house, hidden on a deserted road, itself hidden in a small town in  remote part of West Virginia. The same at every scale, her hiding, and so total it felt like a mathematical certainty.

"I'm sorry," she said to the instructor. She was calling attention to herself in the worst way -- a way that wouldn't soon be forgotten. The weird, quiet girl was finally saying something. A few students chuckled nervously. "I just ..." She looked around at the twenty or so other students and thought about this baby growing inside of her, how this smaller scale of herself would end up deeply hidden, too, layer under layer under layer.

This she couldn't allow.
Melanie's insight sends her abruptly out of her home, toward the Jersey shore and the dying reporter whose blog on the crime involving her parents has been one of her secret resources. Critical to her safety is whether her fenced-in existence has given her enough experience to tell truth from lies, and fact from wishful thinking. And safety from danger.

After all, just saying who she is -- that long-ago three-year-old child who was supposedly killed 15 years back -- is breaking open the first layer of secrets.

Kardos peels back layers and makes revelations, page by page. But they are at least as much about the fragile and confusing nature of love, as they are about that old crime. And in his hands, the working and married lives in Jersey in 1991 unfold tenderly, as if a Bruce Springsteen song had come to life in all the fullness of family and work and aching. What comfort can there be? What risk?

BEFORE HE FINDS HER proves that a work of suspense need not be gory, bloody, or pushed by threats of explosion -- the power of the past and the tenderness of the unfolding present make this a very unusual page-turner. And as for Melanie ... what she's risking and daring is simply ... amazing.

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