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Hinterland

What is “hinterland?” Depending on which specific definition, it can be the land adjacent to the coastline of the ocean or a large river; or it can be any land that is away from the cities – the backcountry.

In its own way, both definitions apply to this novel. It takes place near the port city of Boston, and in the unmapped territory of family relationships, mental illness, and in the confusion of the heart. The main characters are neighbors – an elderly mother, Tilly, and her daughter, Ina, who was married to one of two brothers, Nicholas and Stefano, who lived next door, and the wife and daughter (Kathleen and Kate) of Nicholas. Another set of neighbors, Adrial and Manuel, also figure into the tale.

Tangling the relationship is the fact that Nicholas had been in love with Ina, who is now separated from Stefano. Nicholas had been in prison and is now returned to his angry, troubled wife, his confused young daughter, and his brother’s wife returned to her girlhood home as she seeks a divorce. And one further complication: Kathleen is a paranoid schizophrenic who attempts to injure, perhaps kill her child.

L. M. Brown is a master of what is not said – the purposeful silences of characters; the missed opportunity for a character to speak, or the economical phrase that is laden with deeper meaning.

Kathleen to Nicholas: “You’re always leaving. Every time I come into a f-ing room you leave.”

Kate, returning from a visit to Tilly and Ina, conducted under Kathleen’s watchful eye. “Mom shouted.”

Kathleen, in court, for the attempted murder of her daughter: she will not speak. Tilly, in the hospital, to Ina: “You need to get back to your life.”

Ina, to Tilly, explaining why she has left Stefano: “He has a child… You were wrong about him. He isn’t one of the good ones.”

Do you begin to read between the lines? L.M Brown’s work, reviewed in this paper before, has always been eloquent in few words, but where short stories can demand such skill of a writer, a novel will sometimes tempt a writer to fall in love with words. As writers are told, you have to “kill your darlings,” but I suspect that Brown is not given to over-writing. This is not to suggest that the writer can’t be descriptive – her descriptions draw the reader in immediately to a picture that comes together with perfect clarity. Her description of the elderly Tilly, now in a nursing home, is a lovely, delicate example. We don’t really know what she “looks” like. We know her hair is fine and flyaway, and that she is slight of build, but not much more. As she sits in her bed, a book in her hand, she is examining Nicholas as he enters her room. “Tilly seemed expectant and proud and he would have hated her for that if he wasn’t so drained.” It doesn’t matter where the bed is in the room, or whether the room is small or large, the covers hospital beige or a colorful quilt from her home. Each of us will draw a picture in our heads. What’simportantis that she is, in this reader’s mind, a watchful mother bird of a woman, but proud-such a perfect choice to describe an attitude of watching, waiting, observing, judging. Brown writes past the colors and into the substance of the characters, leaving us to populate the scenes with details that suit each of our imaginations.

What is also surprising is the deep complexity of not only the relationships among the characters but of each character individually. There are layers upon layers of emotions and ideas, spoken and not, and every character has a history that challenges us to come to grips with it – divorces, mental instability, aging, prison, loves and losses – and in the midst of it all, a little girl for whom everyone is concerned and who quietly struggles to make sense of a world no one has explained to her, possibly because no one can.

Brown is, I suspect, just reaching her stride as a writer, and I’ll look forward to following her career as she continues.

Nancy Roberts
Writer, voice over artist, information achitect, very curious person.