Tag Archives: Lisa Unger

A cautionary tale unfolds in a gemlike psychological thriller

Under My Skin, by Lisa Unger. Park Row Books. 368 pages. Trade Paperback Original $16.99.

Lisa Unger’s craft is so astonishing that it makes me want to cry tears of appreciative joy. Tears are also prompted by the harrowing situation of Ms. Unger’s main character, Poppy, as she tries to rebound from the hideous murder of her husband Jack. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Poppy blanked out for several days, coming to consciousness in a state of confusion. Her identity has been oddly transformed and her confidence shaken.  

With the help of a therapist, she has made a lot of progress in the year since Jack’s death, but she is frequently tormented by strange nightmares that might be distorted memories. Are bits and pieces of the lost days pressing for recognition? There are also other patches of time that she cannot recall. Moreover, she doesn’t trust herself to sort out what’s real and what’s the product of a dream-state.

Her goals are to fill in the blanks and to bring Jack’s murderer to justice. Then to pick up the pieces of her life and move forward.

Poppy’s path to health is thwarted by her abuse of pills and alcohol. She sabotages Dr. Nash’s therapy by lying to her. In her attempts to regain control of her life, she resists the overtures of her controlling best friend, Layla. She also resists the overtures of her controlling mother. Poppy needs to be in control; she needs to set limits on well-meaning intrusions on her autonomy.

Poppy lives in a state of fear; she is pathetically vulnerable.

She believes that she is being tracked by a hooded man who might be connected to Jack’s murder. Her attempts at gaining control show courage but also recklessness. Slowly, ever so slowly, she makes progress.

Important secondary characters include Detective Grayson, the NYPD policeman working the murder case, and a Neil, a man who makes metal sculptures. Neil is a shadowy figure from Poppy’s recent past now clearly an important part of her present. Both are protective of Poppy, but in very different ways and with different motives.

Poppy’s ordeal, her attempt to recapture the idealized memories of her married life, carries the unexpected strain of doubts about the true nature of her relationship with Jack, a relationship compromised by his responses to her two miscarriages. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the October 24, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the October 25 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Venice editions, and the November 1 Palm Beach and Charlotte County editions, click  here: Florida Weekly – Under My Skin

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Characters bedeviled by trauma and loss explored in bestselling author’s latest effort

The Red Hunter, by Lisa Unger. Touchstone. 368 pages. Hardcover $25.99.

This delicately constructed thriller explores the distance and proximity between two women whose paths cross in strikingly unusual ways. The younger of the two, Zoey Drake, has lived through a lengthy and ongoing recovery from a devastating childhood trauma. Her parents were murdered before eyes in their rural home outside of New York City. Zoey, who barely survived, has lived with a rage she must control to function effectively. Rigorous martial arts training has been her coping mechanism and her security against being victimized in her adulthood as she was in her childhood. 

She has been reared and put through college by the man she calls Uncle Paul, and she assists him as he struggles with poor health. She supports herself through cat-sitting jobs and by helping her martial arts mentor teach self-defense to young girls. Nightmares haunt her, but she has gained a healthy self-confidence.

The place she was raised in is now occupied by a mother and teenage daughter. For Claudia Bishop, renovating this home is part of an extended recovery from a horrible assault and rape that occurred many years ago. Seventeen year old Raven, herself a troubled young woman, feels the need to follow up on the possibility that she is not the child of the loving man from who Claudia has been long divorced. Perhaps she is the daughter of the rapist. Her quest regarding her identity is one plot driver in this brilliant, complex novel.

Lisa Unger – photo by Jay Nolan

Signs of intruders lead to the revelation that somewhere between the house and the barn might be the buried fruits of a robbery gone haywire. There’s a possibility that individuals connected with the robbery are committed to recovering a million dollars. The theft involved corrupt police. It looks like the handyman Claudia has hired for the renovation was somehow involved, as was his brother – a desperate, soulless character recently released from prison.

Through shifting narrators and points of view, Ms. Unger orchestrates the series of revelations that lead to the final outcome. The suspense is almost unbearable in this fast-paced psychological thriller.

I don’t know of another writer working today who brings us characters with such precisely rendered emotional complications. Of course, they are put in situations – or can’t stop remembering situations – that give them a lot to process. Sometimes they are presented from a third person perspective, and sometimes they are briefly narrators. It’s not easy to make such (unrecommended) shifts work, but Lisa Unger makes it a compelling feature of her art. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the April 26, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and in the April 27 Naples, Palm Beach, and Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte editions, click here: Florida Weekly – The Red Hunter

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Brooding spirits, lost voices of The Hollows make their claim, again

Ink and Bone, by Lisa Unger. Touchstone. 352 pages. Hardcover $24.99.

If you’ve never been to The Hollows before, that upstate New York community that passes for normal while hiding its truly haunted nature, then you’re in for a big surprise. Restless spirits fester in The Hollows. They cry out for recognition. They have stories to share.  In time of trouble, residents and visitors may sense that there is something strange going on – some kind of invisible force. There seem to be voices, sometimes cries, in the wind.  InkandBone

There are people who are sensitive to the spirit world, whether they wish to be or not. These are the same people who have psychic powers which grant them glimpses of the future, or of the hidden past. They are called upon by the spirits. Eloise Montgomery has lived among the haunted, and among the rest of us, for her whole life: “Eloise told her [granddaughter Finley] long ago that a haunting was a relationship, that the dead clung to the living only as much as the living clung to the dead.”

Finley Montgomery, a twenty-year-old student at the local Sacred Heart College, also has this power, and sometimes the spirit voices and her strange dreams overwhelm her. Only Eloise is able to help her. And she will need all the help she can get to avoid being pulled under by what she must confront.

There is a long history of children who have gone missing in The Hollow. For almost a year, Merri Gleason has tried to find her daughter, Abbey. She feels that if Abbey is not already dead, she soon will be if she’s not found. She contacts Jones Cooper, a former police officer now working as a private detective. Though Jones is a down-to-earth guy, a man of facts, he is open to the paranormal. On the right kind of case he will consult with Eloise. Finding Abbey is one such case.

Lisa Unger credit Jeff Unger

Lisa Unger credit Jeff Unger

It’s a case that can’t help but suck fiercely tattooed Finley into it, much to her peril.

Ms. Unger orchestrates her gripping, eerie novel so that readers alternate among several plot strands, trying to guess if and how they will come together. Tracking down Abbey is one strand. Witnessing the imprisonment and attempted escapes of a young girl called Penny is another. Readers are teased with the idea that Penny is not this girl’s actual name by the introduction of another girl referred to as Real Penny. Perhaps the one we meet is a replacement for one who fled or died. And perhaps there have been others who have been called Penny. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the June 1, 2016 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the June 2 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda /Port Charlotte, and Palm Beach Gardens / Jupiter editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Ink and Bone

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Uneasy spirits suffer and rage in complex psycho-thriller

Crazy Love You, by Lisa Unger. Touchstone. 352 pages. Hardcover $25.99. Ian Paine writes graphic novels about himself. His stand-in is named Fatboy, a name Ian had to own in the cruel public school days of his youth. Unattractive, friendless, and often repressing a desperate rage, both Ian and Fatboy relate in complex ways to a character named Priss. Ian’s relationship to Priss reveals the kinship of two terms: addiction and haunting. The Hollows, Ian’s upstate New York home town, is haunting central. Crazy-Love-You-Hardcover It is in The Hollows, as well, where Priss is most alive. I say “most alive” because her quasi-reality is one of the book’s puzzles and attractions. When Ian was a child, his only friend was Priss. He was bullied or ignored by everyone else. But she wasn’t a schoolmate. She did not attend school. No one witnessed them together. Was she really there, or only in Ian’s head? Was Priss, is Priss, the imaginary friend writ large? Since Ian is the first person narrator, credible within limits, Priss’s reality for him becomes – much of the time – her reality for the reader. However, those in Ian’s world who deny her reality are credible as well. The Priss in Ian’s Fatboy books is a seductive femme fatale. In his memory or present vision, she is not only his age – as if they had grown up together – but any one of the ages she might be – even the young girl he first met. Priss seems to be a time-traveling wraith, imprisoned by rage. Both Ian and Priss have suffered parallel family disasters in their lives, leading the reader to suspect that Priss is a projection. Like her Ian/Fatboy is never very distant from a rage that leaps out at times and controls his behavior. Though he has no memory of his destructive outbreaks, their consequences are unmistakable. Who controls whom?

Lisa Unger

Lisa Unger

Ian, now a success, no longer ugly and overweight, manages his anxieties with drugs. He uses them to smooth things out. At times, he frees himself, but dependency returns. Narcotics allow him to do his creative work. Priss is another kind of addiction. Can addictions ever be good for you? Necessary? Or only life-threatening. Good news comes into Ian’s life in the person of beautiful, generous Megan. She makes her version of normality shine brightly. Feeling his unworthiness, Ian is amazed at how quickly their relationship progresses. He can’t help but reveal his many faults, but Megan finds ways of accepting his excuses – up to a point. Her parents can’t stand him, but there’s nothing new about that plot point. She’s an adult. She seems sure of herself. They grin falsely and bear it. Slowly and with many setbacks, with Priss interfering in the most threatening ways, Ian builds the better self that will be worthy of Megan. It frightens him, however, that she wishes for them to live in The Hollows. So much that Ian has striven to escape is rooted there: childhood trauma, rejection, and Priss. How can this work? I won’t tell you. . . . To read the full review, as it appears in the February 18, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the February 19 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte edtions, click here Florida Weekly – Crazy Love You 1 and here Florida Weekly – Crazy Love You 2.

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Novelist Lisa Unger explores the deadly charm of madness

“In the Blood,” by Lisa Unger. Touchstone. 352 pages. $25.99.

Lisa Unger is the high priestess of the psychological thriller, and with this new book she has both focused and deepened her penetration into the abyss of aberration. This is a remarkable study about people whose feelings are not normal and whose behavior is dangerous. It is also about the threshold between despair and hope, healing and numbing, deceit and brutal honesty. InTheBloodCover

Ms. Unger presents us with states of mind and emotion that we wish to turn away from, but her art is so hypnotic that we cannot. We face this abyss, and we learn by facing it.

When we meet Lana Granger, she is struggling through her senior year at Sacred Heart College in The Hollows, an upstate New York community that has been the setting for several Lisa Unger’s novels. Lana is a very private person. She dresses simply and modestly. She avoids touching. She doesn’t share much about her background (her father has been convicted of killing her mother) and essentially she lives a life of lies.

Over the years, therapy and medication have helped Lana survive her demons, but memories and voices still haunt her. No one really knows her, but those who sense what’s beneath the mask are a threat. For these few, can she risk being honest, truly being “herself”?

Lisa Unger

Lisa Unger

Her college counselor, an expert on abnormal psychology, arranges for Lana to take a babysitting job with a terribly troubled boy who is enrolled in nearby Fieldstone School, a last-chance institution for kids with severe behavior problems.

Luke is a brainy, controlling fellow with a cruel, violent streak that breaks out of control too often. Like many children, he learned early on that his antics make him the center of attention. He knows how to manipulate others to get what he wants. Lana, who understands a great deal about Luke’s inner world from her own past, is a skilled adversary, but is she skilled and courageous enough? More and more is at stake as their relationship unfolds. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Fort Myers Florida Weekly for February 26, 2014 and the February 27 Naples and Bonita Springs editions, click here Florida Weekly – Unger 1 and  here Florida Weekly – Unger 2

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Dysfunction and danger drive Lisa Unger’s latest thriller

“Heartbroken,” by Lisa Unger. Crown/Random House. 384 pages. $24.00.

By now, readers of my columns know that I view Lisa Unger as one of our foremost younger novelists writing today. She works with, not merely within, the conventions of genre in amazing ways. She probes the psychological dimensions of her characters with tremendous empathy and acumen. Her plotting reminds me of fine architecture, at once functional and esthetically dazzling. On top of all this, she is a superb stylist. 

The richness of “Heartbroken” comes from many sources. One of these is the novel’s insights into troubled family dynamics. Another is Ms. Unger’s ability to etch vivid, fully-realized characters across the spectrum of age and experience. Yet another is her uncanny skill at mood-building, in this case the several moods of Heart Island, the rampant moodiness of teenagers, the alternating moods – internal and external – of sunlight and storm.

Fortyish Kate, gifted by her late Aunt Caroline with not only Caroline’s private journals but also those of Lana, Caroline’s mother, has come through on the other side of her “only-a-mom” existence. She has fashioned a novel rooted in those journals, which hold family secrets. It is about to be published. Reluctantly, Kate is bringing her family for one of the annual trips to the family’s summer home – a private island on a lake in upstate New York. Kate will try once again to establish a healthy relationship with her harshly judgmental mother, Birdie Burke, who is the human embodiment of the rocky retreat.

Kate’s teenage daughter Chelsea, persuaded that she’ll have fun because she can bring along her promiscuous best friend Lulu, subdues her reluctance. Chelsea’s younger half-brother Brendan has an accident and will come up later with Sean, Brendan’s father. Sean, after a bad year in real estate, has a fantastic new listing to put on the market that will delay his arrival on Heart Island for a day or two. He really doesn’t want to go at all. He and everyone else fear the encounter with the rigid, endlessly disapproving Birdie. 

Lisa Unger

On a separate plot track, readers meet twentyish Emily, a college dropout waitressing in a restaurant and becoming fearful about her relationship with Dean, a no-account slacker who flatters and frightens her into doing his bidding. Disaster strikes when Dean and his friend Brad connive to have Emily assist them in robbing the restaurant where she works. Now they are on the lam, having seriously injured Carol, the owner, and killed another employee. Emily had told Dean about a remote lake island where they can hide out. She remembers having had some good times there as a young child.

Kate and Emily, then, are headed to the same place. For Kate, the journey carries the heavy weight of obligation; for Emily, it carries a fragile hope of escape and, somewhat irrationally, of redemption. Readers will have to find out why Emily’s last name is Burke. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the June 27, 2012 Fort Myers Florida Weekly, in the June 28 Naples and Spacecoast editions, and in the July 5 Bonita Springs edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Heartbroken pdf

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Lisa Unger’s latest thriller digs up dark secrets

Lisa Unger, “Darkness, My Old Friend.” Crown. $24.00. 368 pages.

Lisa Unger’s latest novel takes us back to The Hollows, an ordinary yet somewhat eerie suburb of New York City first probed in Ms. Unger’s “Fragile” (2010, now in paperback). Familiar to readers of “Fragile” will be Jones Cooper and his wife Dr. Maggie Cooper, a psychologist. Jones is a retired police officer who has been staying around the house and doing odd jobs for neighbors. “Fragile” records the unfortunate events that led to his retirement, which has left Jones somewhat unsettled. Though he had no plans to become a private detective, people are coming his way with problems that lure him in that direction. 

The other characters in “Darkness, My Old Friend” are new. Bethany Graves has only recently moved to the Hollows after a somewhat bitter divorce. She has left the city to protect her daughter, Willow, from its evils. But teenagers always find trouble, and Willow is a classic example of a young girl filled with resentment and overcompensating for low self-esteem. She is uncooperative at school, skips classes, and has one good friend, Jolie, who is even more of a trouble-maker. Both are drawn to darkness and danger. Together, they witness mysterious and suspicious behavior in the heavily wooded area that borders one of the town’s older neighborhoods. Someone seems to be digging something up – or trying to. Bethany is near her wit’s end in dealing with Willow, who has become Maggie Cooper’s patient.

Eloise Montgomery, a psychic (for lack of a better term), has been feeling the presence of danger involving townspeople past and present. There seems to be some connection between the digging, Eloise’s intuitions, and the long-ago disappearance of Marla Holt – a gorgeous young woman who was thought to have simply left The Hollows and her family to escape her life’s tedium. Her son Michael has recently returned to the family’s home after the death of his father, Mack. Michael, who is the person the teens found digging, has unfinished business. He engages Eloise and PI Ray Muldune to find out what happened to his mother.

Lisa Unger - by Tanya Sharkey

Another failing marriage involves Paula and Kevin Carr. Kevin has been a controlling, abusive husband whom Paula fears. She has agreed to add to their household young Cole, Kevin’s son by his first wife, Robin. Kevin claims that Robin is unable to raise Cole properly. Paula soon learns that Robin is missing, and she engages Jones Cooper to find him. Meanwhile, Cole attracts both Willow and Jolie, becoming part of a rather unhealthy teen triangle. Before long, Paula is missing as well and Jones sets out to find her. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the September 7, 2011 issue of Fort Myers Florida Weekly and in the September 8 issue of the Naples edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Lisa Unger (2). For pdf versions, see Darkness pdf – 1 and Darkness pdf – 2

See also:

BOOK BEAT 70 – Lisa Unger

Posted by: Philip K. Jason on June 5, 2008

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Lisa Unger: delicate bonds stretched to the limit

“Fragile,” by Lisa Unger. Shaye Areheart /Crown. 336 pages. $24.00.

In The Hollows, a small town 100 miles from New York City, a rebellious teenager named Charlene disappears. Pressed into service is Jones Cooper, the head of detectives on the local police force. Concerned as well is his wife Maggie, a psychologist who has insights into Charlene as well as into Charlene’s mother, Melody, once a high school classmate, as was Jones and many other townspeople. The Hollows holds onto its young, who turn into its parents and then its retired grandparents – like Maggie’s declining mother, Elizabeth, once the high school’s principal.

One of Maggie’s patients is Marshall Crosby, a troubled boy at the edge of destructive behavior. He is the son of disgraced former policeman Travis Crosby – a high school crony of Jones’s – and grandson of the older Travis Crosby, retired from his mean-spirited reign as the town’s police chief.

Center stage for the Coopers is their son, Ricky, who considers goth-fashioned Charlene his girl friend. Exactly how close they are is not clear, but Ricky has also been rebellious and secretive. What does he know about Charlene’s disappearance? What will he reveal?  

Is Charlene a runaway – or has she been abducted? Will she end up like one of her mother’s classmates, Sarah, who a generation back was found murdered shortly after her disappearance? Questions about Charlene bring up memories of Sarah’s death – a closed case, but with some loose ends.  

And why is Marshall Crosby, the son and grandson of abusers, trying so hard to find out if he is a good person or a bad person?

While Lisa Unger shows amazing skill at plot development, pacing, and projecting a rich sense of place, her talent in characterization – in plumbing the depths of her characters’ inner circumstances – is truly exceptional. Readers will be enthralled by the access they gain to each major character’s fluctuations of emotional temperature. Even more important in this novel is Ms. Unger’s penetration into the nuances of relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, public and private roles, friendships and mere dependencies, the self as child and the self as adult. How strong, or fragile, are these ties?

To read this review in its entirely, as it appeares in the August 4-10, 2010 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – Lisa Unger’s FRAGILE

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Lisa Unger’s “Die for You”: A Bone Zero Thriller

A shorter (750 word) version of this review appears in the Dec. 17- 23, 2009 issue of the Naples Florida Weekly.and in the Dec. 23-29 issue of Fort Myers Florida Weekly.  See: Florida Weekly – Lisa Unger

[Shaye Areheart Books imprint of Random House. $24.00. 352 pages.]

Lisa Unger is a novelist whose style and plotting are so fine, and whose explorations of the human psyche are so emotionally devastating, that reading her novels is an exquisite torture. She takes us places we don’t really want to go, even when protected by the supposed safety of a book’s covers. But once we’ve risked the first few chapters, there is no turning back. She has us needing to work our way through, with her characters, the most frightening, disorienting circumstances. So it is once again in her latest effort, Die for You, a brilliant evocation of the questioning mind: the person who cannot live without knowing the “why” behind the forces that are out to betray and destroy her, even if the search for answers only deepens the danger.  

LisaUnger

For certain people, there is no living without knowing. Isabel Raine is one of those people. A successful novelist and seemingly happily-married young woman, she finds herself in a dangerous situation when her Czech-born husband doesn’t return from work one day and, soon after, his office is ransacked by people pretending to be FBI agents. Isabel, at his office to find clues to Marc’s disappearance, is herself seriously injured by the intruders. When she awakens in a hospital, she asks her sister Linda, “Why didn’t they kill me?”  As narrator, Isabel continues:

It wasn’t a lamentation; it was a question of pure curiosity. They should have killed me. I saw them all, could easily identify any of them and would likely be doing so shortly. Bu they hadn’t. Why not? To someone who constructed plot for a living, it seemed stupid, careless.

So it goes with Isabel Raine, asking the questions a novelist would ask with the audacity of the creative spirit rather than allowing herself to be a mere victim. She pushes against the professional investigators as often as she cooperates with them, and she takes independent action as if she were merely following out the dynamics of a work of fiction set in motion by her own imagination.

Detective Grady Crowe and his partner, Jesamyn Breslow, pursue the case with some suspicion of Isabel herself. Their professional skills and commitment, as well as their human foibles, are well-drawn by Unger, as is their frustration with Isabel’s behavior. Early on in the investigation, they provide Isabel with some shocking truths: the man to whom she has been married for five years had usurped the identity of another man – a Marcus Raine who was also an immigrant from the Czech Republic and who also worked in computer software – who disappeared in 1999. He, the new Marcus, had been living a lie. Isabel had been duped.

With these revelations, the premise shifts gears. It’s no longer “what happened to Marcus Raine?” but “how could Marcus have done this to Isabel” and “how could she have let this happen.” Thematically, Unger probes questions like “how well do we ever know another person” and “what is the root of personal identity.” It’s about nature and nurture, how relationships are built, how trust is won and lost, and how both knowledge and ignorance are dangerous things.

Now, seeming digressions into the backgrounds of Isabel and Linda, their choices in husbands, their contrasting responses to their father’s suicide and their mother’s remarriage, all become part of a much more intricate puzzle that goes beyond the mechanics of popular genre writing. While we can easily label Die for You as a psychological thriller, it is much more.

Like Isabel Raine, Lisa Unger is compelled to follow up on all questions about what makes people tick. She makes Isabel’s chase after the truth about her husband an inquiry into Isabel’s own psyche and behavior. She, Unger, complicates our understanding of the creative process, drawing parallels between the kind of character-invention a novelist undertakes and the kind of self-creation that we all undertake to one degree or another. It is even possible to say that Isabel believed in her husband because he was so well scripted and fit so well into the plot of her own life.

Now her life’s plot includes imminent danger. At one point in the novel Isabel’s long-time friend, constant admirer, and literary agent warns her: “This is not some novel you’re writing, Isabel . . . . This is your life.” When Isabel asks Jack “What’s the difference?” she is not just making a flip remark. Passages like this echo through Die for You, keeping us in touch with Unger’s powerful metaphor concerning life and art.

For all its provocative wisdom, Die for You commands the reader’s attention as a pulse-pounding march of incidents and information, often frightening, sometimes tender, always drawn sure-handedly and efficiently. Unger carefully orchestrates the revelation of information and the building of suspense by juxtaposing Isabel’s narration (the main thread) with scenes that glide through the thoughts of several other characters. Her delineation of subordinate characters – Isabel’s sister Linda, Linda’s husband Erik, their children Trevor and Emily, the detectives, a doorman, the haunted character Ben who eerily echoes the sisters’ father, and many others – is superb. Her renderings of several New York City neighborhoods and her evocations of Prague ring true.

Die4You-Cover

Die for You extends the pattern of riveting excellence that has brought acclaim to Lisa Unger’s previous work: Beautiful Lies, Sliver of Truth, and Black Out. Keep in touch with her via her web site lisaunger.com.

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For a review of Unger’s Black Out, see Lisa Unger

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BOOK BEAT 70 – Lisa Unger

BOOK BEAT   Naples Sun Times   June 5, 2008

by Philip K. Jason

Where is the borderline between popular genre fiction and “literary” novels? This is a question that comes up more and more often, as some of the most accomplished novelists writing today choose to mine popular modes. Perhaps that’s the only way of attracting an agent or publisher. In a world of market-driven publishing decisions, one has to aim at a designated section of the bookstore: science fiction, romance, thriller, etc. At the outset of his career, James Lee Burke was a well-reviewed “literary” writer whose books did not sell well. But once Burke hit upon bad-boy Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux, he found himself regularly on the best-seller list. 

 Like Burke, like Geraldine Brooks in her astounding history-rooted fictions “March” and  “People of the Book,” Clearwater resident Lisa Unger has gone beyond the conventions and formulas of a popular genre and now knocks on the door of true literary artistry. “Black Out,” Unger’s third novel, is a powerful, penetrating, and truly frightening look at a compromised mind in a series of desperate situations. Her protagonist, Annie Powers, lives a fairly comfortable life with her husband and young daughter in the suburbs outside of (unnamed) Tampa. However, the substance of Annie Powers’ identity is a shell, a graft upon a young woman named Ophelia March who had suffered every kind of abuse, beginning with parental neglect and ending with forced complicity in a series of horrible crimes.

Ophelia was a prisoner to her lack of self-esteem, easy prey to manipulators and control freaks. Her escape from her dead-end life required, ironically enough, her apparent death, and her ultimate psychological freedom demands the sure knowledge that her principal jailor – the dark, mesmerizing, yet vacant young man who is also her lover – is dead.

Somehow (you’ll have to read the book for the slowly and artfully revealed details), Ophelia March disappears to be reborn as Annie. But Annie is haunted by the past, by memory gaps, by nightmares, by threats to the fragile peace of mind she has achieved. “Black Out” becomes the story of a lost identity, a divided identity, struggling to find itself and yet fearing what it will find. The reader can’t be sure, during Annie’s searing journey, if she is doomed to paranoia or if there are external forces at work to thwart her quest for wholeness.

Unger complicates her narrative and deepens the resonance of her psychological probing by interweaving several timelines. Each timeline has its own suspenseful integrity, and yet each is part of Annie/Ophelia’s horrendous, tortured path. By juxtaposing different stages of her protagonist’s real and imagined journey, Unger at once ratchets up the suspense and allows the reader to share Annie’s bewildering disorientation. Readers also recognize her determination to reclaim her life, which means to redeem Ophelia.

The supporting cast of characters is superb, including Ophelia’s inept parents; the psychotic criminal Frank Geary and his equally twisted son, Marlowe, who becomes Ophelia’s lover and controller; Annie’s husband, Gray Powers, and Gray’s manipulative father and stepmother. We meet as well Annie’s amazingly well-balance daughter, Victory; a compromised police detective; an equally compromised therapist; various thugs; and an assortment of lesser characters that are sharply individualized if only in walk-on parts.

So, we could say that “Black Out,” published by the prestigious Shaye Areheart imprint of Crown (itself a division of Random House), is an outstanding example of the psychological thriller. It’s also a white hot page-turner. However, this book is more than a thrill ride. Its feeling-tones and issues linger after the denouement, as is the case with significant literature. Its exploration of the human psyche brings insights both authentic and profound. Annie’s plight will mean something to astute readers – they will take it personally. Lisa Unger is not – or not yet – the American Dostoevsky, but she may be on her way.

Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy.  A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club.

Note: I was pleased that the “Book Beat” column ended on this high note. Lisa Unger is among the most talented authors now writing in Florida. You can find two reviews of her more recent books on this site.

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