I loved Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips. It is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, containing every necessary element for a great book: compelling and fully-developed characters, resonant and alive atmosphere, complex and provoking plot, satisfying and unforgettable resolution, and absolutely beautiful writing.
Phillips takes her time with this novel, allowing layers of the story to grow and deepen and bloom into a fully-realized world of good and bad, hope and despair, past and present, hell and even heaven itself. The characters latched on to me and took hold, as surely as if my hand was being held; I became intimately connected, especially to the children, and when trouble comes, I shook with fear and helplessness – and I became nervous with desire for revenge, and hungry for redemption.
Phillips’ novel is based on the true story of Harry Powers, a man who seduced middle aged women he found through the lonely hearts correspondence clubs popular in the early 1900s. In his love letters to his victims, he claimed to be both wealthy and decent, a single man looking to settle down and start a family, and lacking only the proper woman at his side. The women became convinced of his love, gathered their life savings and possessions, and took off with him, never to be seen again. No one knows how many women Powers killed but he was a serial murder who acted out his murderous fantasies for years before being caught.
In telling the story of the murders that finally brought Powers to the attention of the police and landed him in jail and on trial for his life, Phillips is wise enough to go easy on the revenge – she knows there is little solace in its fulfillment – but goes heavy and deep with the redemption, and for this I am grateful. She offers moving and persuasive proof that the only answer to evil is goodness. Goodness in the form of love and connection, and goodness in the form of survival. The warming of another heart, the resilience of joined company, and the promise of another, better day: “The stream meanders, shines with snowmelt; the water, shaken in ripples, warms suddenly, as though some seismic shift deep in the earth moves time forward. The air breathes and the trees stir, tossing their limbs, opening every bud and leaf.”
The promise of spring, of cycles, of rebirth and renewal. Found in a Quiet Dell.