The Blackbird Season. Kate Moretti

4 stars for this unsettling thriller set in small-town America.

The book is written from the perspectives of four main characters: Nate Winters, teacher at Mt Oanoke High; his wife Alecia who cares for their autistic son Gabe; recently-widowed colleague and friend Bridget Peterson; and 18-year-old pupil Lucia Hamm. Nate has always been popular and is seen as a good man: bringing in bagels for pupils who have had no breakfast, putting in time, care and effort with the boys he coaches at baseball, and buying birthday gifts for the school admin staff. Then everything falls apart when he is accused of having an affair with Lucia, an accusation of abuse of the teacher-pupil relationship that sees him suspended from his post and being questioned by the police. Nobody trusts Nate any more, least of all his wife. And worse is still to come…

This is an absorbing thriller, and a good study of small-town life where everyone knows one another – or believes that they do until they are jarred by the book’s events. The characters are well-drawn, with authentic life-stories. I would be interested to read more about Bridget in particular. The only part of the book that I disliked was that the date was given at the head of each section: the story jumped backwards and forwards in time frequently, I think readers are used to this and to figuring out a timeline for themselves. By providing a date, the impulse is to double-check where the section’s events fall in the timescale of the book, by skipping back to the heading. This lifts the reader out of the story, and is also irritating especially in an ebook as it can be time-consuming finding the heading again.

I particularly liked how a sense of menace was built up in the novel. The title The Blackbird Season comes from a near-Biblical event at the beginning of the book: hundreds of starlings falls out of the sky instantaneously, their simultaneous deaths inexplicable. There are mentions of blackbirds, starlings, crows and ravens throughout the book, especially in connection with Lucia and with tarot cards. And the birds are also seemingly linked to the town’s dead industrial past: the closed paper mill. Has the mill caused the deaths because of noxious gases or arsenic byproducts or something else? The mill looms, threateningly huge, dark, derelict and dangerous, a malevolent presence. The sense of menace in the book gains power from being so nebulous. This aspect of the novel reminded me of John Burnside’s fabulously dark novel Glister.

I received this ebook free from NetGalley and the publisher, Titan Books. UK publication date: 26 September 2017.

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