Friendly Fire, by Lisa Guenther (NeWest Press 2015)
To call Lisa Guenther’s debut novel a mystery is a bit superficial, and possibly reductive. At the heart of Friendly Fire there is indeed a secret, but it is only the engine which drives her story – the vehicle she uses to reveal the complex dynamics of family and small town relationships. And Guenther, an agricultural journalist from Livelong, Saskatchewan, knows a thing or two about both.
When Darby Swank, a university dropout, accidentally discovers the body of her beloved aunt floating in Brightsand Lake, the veil through which she viewed her tiny rural community is lifted to reveal the violence and wilful ignorance that may always have existed just beneath the surface. The comfort and safety she sought in leaving school and returning home are pulled from beneath her, and Darby is forced to re-examine her relationships with family and friends, including her on-again-off-again lover, Luke, her silent father, and her fun-loving uncle Will.
In spite of the fact that Darby’s lucid dreams may be subconsciously leading her toward the killer, she is a reluctant protagonist. Like the community around her, Darby prefers to let sleeping dogs lie. She tells a friend, “Things don’t usually work out too well for the whistle blowers, you know.”
The strength of Guenther’s story is its characters. They are – all of them – flawed in very human ways, including the novel’s protagonist. And the author does her best to skirt stereotypes while maintaining the truth which sometimes lies at the heart of stereotype. In a thumbnail sketch, Darby exposes the distrust and fear she harbours for outsiders at her aunt’s funeral:
Women in dark bootleg jeans, tailored blouses, and pointy heals, big sunglasses hiding eyes. Men in sports coats and ties, one of them subtly checking his PDA … I want to smash his gadgets, break the women’s sunglasses. Drive the strangers out of the lobby like rats from a grain elevator.
At the same time, this juxtaposition reveals everything she and her community are not – stylish and urbane. Both things Darby perhaps desires to be herself, had she the courage to leave town and pursue her music in Edmonton.
In many ways, Darby is stifled, as much as protected, by the illusions of rural life. “Families, relationships, they literally mark our landscape out here,” she says. “You don’t say, ‘Turn left at the green house.’ You say, ‘Turn left at the old McNab house.’ It is these attachments to family and landscape that pin her down and stop her from pursuing her music. But it is also these entanglements that stop her from uncovering the mystery of her aunt’s murder, even when the answer lies before her in plain view:
I was missing something. It was like sitting in a boat and watching jackfish swimming. You can never figure out exactly where they are because of the way the light bends when it hits the surface.
However, the truth cannot stay buried forever. Like the brush fire that burns literally and metaphorically throughout this novel, threatening the community, “smouldering deep in the muskeg,” the truth must eventually “flare up.”
In the end, Guenther’s novel is a well-paced character study with a strong sense of place.
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