Good writers conjure characters from the dust and ink. Great writers can resurrect them. Melanie Finn can certainly drag a character through the gauntlet, a skill that remarkably few writers can do with the precision shown often in her most recent novel, The Gloaming. With intertwined narratives, we see the results of failure and the attempts of reclamation. This is a novel about Africa, a novel about grief, and a novel about the need for something better.
The Gloaming opens with Pilgrim Jones reeling from her failing marriage and reflecting on her lover’s future. Here, Finn illustrates the humanity of our narrator, and we begin to see the seeds of a new life for herself. Sadly, this is cut short by a mysterious car accident she causes that results in the deaths of several children, but Pilgrim seems mentally blocked from remembering how exactly it happened. The story truly begins here, with Pilgrim at her absolute lowest, as we see her journey back to normalcy—first in the town of Switzerland where she’s surrounded by the shadowy guilt and then finally to Africa where she searches for the light of hope in a rather dim place. The details describing her every step are soaked with the wrath of sadness of despair:
I was aware of a bad taste in my mouth, as if the corruption was corporeal, like cancer. My skin smelled of it, my sweat reeked of it. I put my hand on the car door. Keep going, I said to myself. The language class in Tunn. It was a fact, like the car. It was all I had. Where I had ended up, after the world, the farthest corners of it, the clever conversations with diplomats and aid workers, after marriage, in this tiny, little life.
Throughout the novel, we follow this road trip of guilt but not once do we feel unnecessarily overwhelmed. This isn’t a “woe is me” story, this is a genuine tale of humanity’s imbalance of good and evil.
The narratives lurking around Pilgrim, like a shark circling it’s soon to be prey, magnify the experience. In Switzerland, we are introduced to Paul Strebel, the detective in charge of the car accident case and develops an hypnotic and personal connection to Pilgrim and Ernst Koppler, the father of one of those killed in the accident and someone who has a history of personal and familial loss. In Africa, we are introduced to Dorothea, a glimmer of light in and otherwise muted landscape; Martin Martins, an ex-pat mercenary who teeters on the edge of civility and savagery; and Gloria, a mother on her own personal journey after the death of her son. They are all lost in their own significant and personally damaged way. They are all touched by the journey that Pilgrim embarks on. Martins says it best, late in the novel, while reading a book of his own: “I know this one. It doesn’t have a happy ending.” This is a world filled with characters that are eerily familiar in the sense that they can feel their uncertain ending.
It’s easy to get caught up in the little defeats of the day to miss out on the greater victories of our lives. Finn reminds of that. She forces readers to come to terms with our past and push forward to a better future. Life requires us to do that, at the very least. The Gloaming is a haunting novel of resurrections and a love letter to the struggles we constantly face. We are reminded that we are better for fighting that battle. We are reminded that even the best of us are created out of the worst, “People want to blame. They want there to be bad so they can believe in good. So they can be good.”
The Gloaming, by Melanie Finn. Columbus, Ohio: Two Dollar Radio, September 2016. 318 pages. $8.99, paper.
Nick Sweeney lives in Lindenhurst, New York. He is allergic to dogs and chocolate and yes, he knows how terrible it must be.