Constant Reader: Contemporary Novels Explore the Secrets of the Past

While both authors I read this month are capable, prolific and acclaimed, their latest novels are most noticeably different in terms of the number of characters. Baltimore-based crime writer Laura Lippman’s “Lady in the Lake” uses some 20 voices to tell her story, while the omniscient narrator of Irish-Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue’s “Akin” focuses on just two. Still, they have one common theme: uncovering the secrets of the past. 

Lippman has been publishing novels since 1997. Her wonderful Tess Monaghan series, as well as her stand-alones, have earned numerous prizes, among them Agatha, Anthony, Edgar, Gumshoe, Shamus and Nero awards. 

I am a bit torn about “Lady,” perhaps because of my love-hate relationship with protagonist Maddie Schwartz. Her frustration as a 1960s housewife and her overwhelming ambition to succeed in a then-male-dominant profession is resonant. Still, Maddie’s choices—most of all, in effect, abandoning her adolescent son— are baffling and made her difficult to like. Similarly distasteful is how the journalist used people to get her story. 

Lippman based the novel on two real but unrelated 1969 cases in Baltimore that illustrate the era’s prejudices—racism in addition to sexism. In both fact and fiction, there were vast differences between how the police handled the murders of the 35-year-old black divorcee and the 11-year-old white Jewish girl. 

The author’s ability to switch narrators—an almost too-common contemporary technique—is singular in that she does not lose continuity. While some voices predominate, others appear only once for a page or two; among them is the witty ghost of one of the murder victims. They all contribute to the reader’s sense of what and who to believe as reliable, as well as to the long, slow, often surprising reveal. 

The former Baltimore Sun reporter’s depiction of the Baltimore Star newsroom where Maddie works seemed spot on. As is her conclusion that everyone has a worthy story if the reporter cares enough to listen to it. 

While Lippman’s novel lured me with murder and journalism, Donoghue’s “Akin” did not take me in immediately. Still, I wanted to see just how this capable author created a compelling story about two disparate beings who shared nothing beyond genetics and gender: an 80-yearold retired chemistry professor and his 11-year-old great-nephew. But the author of the 2010 novel “Room,” a finalist for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, produced another captivating tale. 

The professor, Noah, and his charge, Michael, had not met before their shared trip to Nice. Both lived in New York City, privileged Noah on the tonier Upper West Side and Michael, in relative poverty in a gentrification-resistant area of Brooklyn. 

At first glance, being alone and uncertain about the future is all they have in common. Noah, a widower who continues to “talk” to his beloved wife, recently left his university job before he ended up as a laughingstock; his sister has just died. He planned a trip to his birthplace as his first venture into what he imagines will be the last years of a lonely old age; in Nice, he also hopes to locate the scenes and the people in his long-dead mother’s photographs in an effort to learn about who she really was. 

The three people in Michael’s life have left him. His father (Noah’s nephew) died of a drug overdose 18 months earlier and his mother is serving a prison term because drugs were found in her car. It is unclear if she is guilty. His grandmother, with whom he most recently lived, has just died. 

While neither Noah nor Michael is pleased with his situation initially, the two manage to find common ground and become “akin.”