'Bent Road': A Haunting, Creepy Family Saga

Bent Road by Lori Roy
 
Bent Road
By Lori Roy
Hardcover, 368 pages
Dutton
List Price: $25.95
Read An Excerpt

More and more, debut fiction needs to stand out from the pack — and assert itself to an audience that all too easily finds other things to occupy the time. At first, Lori Roy seems to be taking a counterintuitive approach with her first novel Bent Road, eschewing flash and dazzle for plainspoken prose and a story that mines past crimes for present consequences.

Don't be fooled by the novel's apparent simplicity: What emerges from the surface is a tale of extraordinary emotional power, one of longstanding pain set against the pulsating drumbeat of social change, a rhythm the Scott family wishes could be ignored but which affects them regardless.

We meet the Scotts — the nervous, haunted Arthur, his urban-acclimated wife, Celia, and their three children — in transit, leaving the race riot-torn Detroit of 1967 for the quiet rural Kansas enclave where Arthur was born and raised (and which he left 20 years before, seemingly for good, following the mysterious death of his sister Eve). But the implicit threat of "broken glass, sparkling green and brown shards scattered across Willingham Avenue on a Sunday morning," combined with seemingly innocuous phone calls for eldest daughter Elaine, leads Arthur back to the steep, hilly Bent Road of his childhood. And much to Celia's surprise, "the closer he gets to home, the faster he drives, as if he is suddenly regretting all those years away."

For a time, regrets do seem to fall away as Arthur and his newly arrived family reacquaint themselves with his mother, Reesa, and sister, Ruth, as Roy describes with patience and superior skill. Elaine embraces the rural life (and small-town love), while middle child Daniel appears to grow more comfortable with more traditional hobbies like hunting. But Bent Road is no place for idylls, not when Eve's death remains unsolved according to the law and not the town, when her consensus murderer lives among them, both part of and at a remove from the Scotts, determined to destroy those around him and especially himself.

And idylls have no place whatsoever in the lives of Celia, struggling to carve out her own place in this rural town of choking discomfort; Ruth, who like Julie Jordan in the musical Carousel has stopped wondering if her alcoholic, violence-prone husband is good or bad; and youngest daughter Evie, both drawn to and involuntarily in the orbit of her dead namesake aunt.

Bent Road is Lori Roy's first novel. A native of Manhattan, Kan., Roy now lives in Florida. She was previously published in the Chattahoochee Review.

hide captionBent Road is Lori Roy's first novel. A native of Manhattan, Kan., Roy now lives in Florida. She was previously published in the Chattahoochee Review.

Valeriya Ritter

It is through Evie most of all that Roy makes her point about inevitability and what lengths families go to — they even kill — to protect themselves. When another girl disappears, what could be a tired trope takes on tragic, even mythic proportions in Bent Road. The twin vanishings leave Evie, friendless and subject to the mercy of cruel, taunting classmates, in a particularly vulnerable spot, prey to forces beyond her control and wishing for something far outside the bounds of life. "If she were dead," Evie thinks, "being small wouldn't matter because no one makes fun of a dead person." Being dead means she wouldn't have to miss those who predeceased her or whose fate remains unknown. And being dead means being beyond the point of hurt and suspicion to a point of sweet release.

Where Bent Road excels the most is in juxtaposing a seemingly encapsulated world of rural routine and slow pace against the rushing onslaught of violence. Arthur may wish to protect his family against the rising tide of civil rights, but only opens deeper wounds within his own family by bringing them home. But his choices seem both right and inevitable, and the Scotts as an entire family are real, flawed people, rich with Roy's natural empathy and understanding that worlds may seem real but are, in fact, a cornucopia of inventions, half-truths and outright lies. Bent Road is a long, winding journey, just like its titular street, where murder comes from love, friendship turns to ash and family bonds strengthen only through the worst sort of circumstances. But Roy is in full narrative command, taking her time to point the reader to the next direction, but always certain – even if we are not – that what comes next is what must happen, not what we hope or wish would transpire.

Sarah Weinman contributes to the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Maclean's, The National Post and many other print and online publications.

Excerpt: 'Bent Road'

Bent Road by Lori Roy
 
Bent Road
By Lori Roy
Hardcover, 368 pages
Dutton
List Price: $25.95

Chapter One

Celia squeezes the steering wheel and squints into the darkness. Her tires bounce across the dirt road and kick up gravel that rains down like hail. Sweat gathers where the flat underbelly of her chin meets her neck. She leans forward but can't see Arthur's truck. There is a shuffling in the backseat. If they were still living in Detroit, maybe driving to St. Alban's for Sunday mass, she would check on Evie and Daniel. But not now. For three days she has driven, slept one night in a motel, all five of the family in one room, another in her own car, and now that the trip is nearly over, Arthur is gone.

"Are we there yet, Mama?" Evie says, her small voice drifting out of the backseat.

Celia presses on the brake. The car rattles beneath her hands. She tightens her grip, clenches her teeth, holds her arms firm.

"No, baby," she whispers. "Soon." "Can you see Daddy and Elaine?" Evie says. "Not now, honey. Try to sleep. I'll wake you kids when we get to Grandma's."

Outside Celia's window, quiet fields glow under the moonlight and roll off into the darkness. She knows to call them fields, not pastures. She knows the wheat will have been harvested by now and the fields left bare. On their last night in Detroit, Arthur had lain next to her in bed and whispered about their new life in Kansas. "Fields are best laid flat," he had said, tracing a line down Celia's neck. "Wheat will rot in a low spot, scatter if it's too high." Then he pulled the satin ribbon tied in a delicate bow at her neckline. "Pastures, those are for grazing. Most any land will do for a good pasture."

Celia shivers, not sure if it's because of the memory of his warm breath on the tip of her earlobe or the words that, like her new life, are finally seeping in. In Kansas, Arthur will be the son; she, just the wife.

As the car climbs another hill, the front tires slip and spin in the dry dirt. The back end rides low, packed full of her mother's antique linens and bone china, the things she wouldn't let Arthur strap to his truck. She blinks, tries to look beyond the yellow cone that her head- lights spray across the road. She's sure she will see Arthur parked up ahead, waiting for her to catch up. The clouds shift and the night grows brighter. It's a good sign.

From the backseat, Evie fluffs her favorite pillow, the one that Celia's mother embroidered with lavender lilacs. Celia inhales her mother's perfume and blinks away the thought of her grave and Father's, both left untouched now that Celia is gone. Taking another deep breath, she lets her hands and arms relax. Her knuckles burn as she loosens her grip. She rolls her head from side to side. Driving uphill is easier.

Broken glass, sparkling green and brown shards scattered across Willingham Avenue on a Sunday morning in the spring of 1965, had been the first sign of the move to come. "This is trouble," Arthur said, dumping the glass into a trash barrel with a tip of his metal dustpan. "Just kids," Celia said. But soon after the glass, the phone calls began. Negro boys, whose words tilted a different way, calling for Elaine. They used ma'am and sir, but still Arthur said he knew a Negro's voice. A colored man had no place in the life of one of Arthur Scott's daughters. Of this, he was damned sure, and after twenty years away, those phone calls must have scared Arthur more than the thought of moving back to Kansas.

Not once, in all their time together, has Arthur taken Celia back to his hometown, never even considered a visit. Here, on Bent Road, he lost his oldest sister, Eve, when he was a teenager. She died, killed in a fashion that Arthur has never been willing to share. He'll look at Evie sometimes, their youngest daughter, usually when the morning light catches her blue eyes or when her hair is freshly washed and combed, and he'll smile and say she is the spitting image of his sister. Nothing more, rarely even uses her name—Eve. But now, the closer he gets to home, the faster he drives, as if he is suddenly regretting all those years away.

Under the full moon, Daniel leans forward, hanging his arms over the front seat. Dad's truck is definitely gone. Ever since sunset, Mama has clenched the steering wheel with both hands, leaned forward with a straight back and struggled to keep Dad's taillights in sight. But the road ahead has been dark for the last several minutes.

From Bent Road by Lori Roy. Reprinted by arrangement with Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright Lori Roy, 2011.

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Bent Road

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