Gretchen: A Thriller by Shannon Kirk

Reviewed by Jim Eaton

At first, I had no idea what to make of this book. It seems in some sub-textual way to be a sort of treatise on coincidence (dare I say, a puzzle within a puzzle). I wasn’t sure to what degree the supernatural was going to play a role; I myself had never heard of any human being (outside of fantasy and sci-fi) having violet eyes. So I suppose you could say this book kept me very much off balance from the start. And it probably isn’t the sort of story I would typically read. Was it a thriller? A mystery? A puzzle in puzzle wrapped in coincidences? It took me more than a few chapters to try to hone in.

How to describe the book without betraying its plot? Hm. You’ve got a woman and a daughter on the run, moving from state to state, hiding from…we don’t know what. The mother won’t tell the daughter. But we do know this has been going on for about thirteen years, since the girl (Lucy) was two years old. I found it ever so slightly confusing that the mother would be worried about them being recognized if in fact the girl was two when they’d fled…but I surmised that the uniquely of the eyes was the root of the paranoia. Maybe. Maybe they were aliens or witches. You decide.

I cannot say anything further about the plot except perhaps that the travelers end up in New Hampshire in a tourist town. And there are snickerdoodles and a car with a turkey on top. And yes, some of the more bizarre and sinister characters I’ve come across this side of George Martin. Brutal stuff, some of it. All wound together by coincidences. Lots of ‘em. And Ray Montagne, whose music I must now hear more of.

The strength of the book lies in its keen eye for characters, their movements, their foibles, their habits and their tics. The story, in that regard, is very visceral, very believable despite being, at times, a slap in the face of whoever first invoked the words “deus ex machina” and the legions of tweed-jacketed canon worshippers that followed his footsteps.

Kirk’s capacity for specific description of place, space, and time is very grounding and astute. We always know where we are and what it looks like, and we never cease to be amazed at the authenticity of the beings inhabiting those place and spaces. Time is treated a bit more oddly but given the strength of the yarn and the unmistakable page-turner power at evidence, one doesn’t mind. I read the book in three days despite the unending parade of demands on my time. Sleep suffered the most.

I will say the only thing I did mind was Indiana. Meaning, the doctor in Indiana and then in New England. Uh, no. That don’t happen unless something’s afoot (like the supernatural). But I wrote that minor hiccup off to a penchant for romance. And there was a decent amount of romance here, and a strong helping of human bonding, and even more familial love, all of which served to allay the pain of all the wacky and criminal behavior that winds throughout somewhat shockingly. “Gretchen” made me sad, and it made me angry, and it made me laugh. A worthy, engaging read for sure, although I am sure there are perhaps three books turned into a single-novel sub sandwich (extra bacon, of course) here. And I would have added an “s” to the title. Alas. Add an extra star if you are a birder, which I am after a modest fashion, or if you’ve ever worked as a cashier and found it oddly meditative, which I have.

Aside: What made this alleged treatise on coincidence so bizarre for me personally was, the night I started reading this, I also started watching Season 2 of Hulu’s “Castle Rock”. I found myself initially wondering who’d stolen what from who story-wise. Those suspicions have since been allayed. Mere coincidence, to be sure. The book in any case is older than the series, so if anything, Mrs. Kirk might have a beef, lol. But no. All good.