Written by Meghan Tifft — This sparkling debut mystery is narrated by the book’s protagonist, Natalie Krupin, a 27-year-old woman adrift in a hazy, smoke-obscured world in and around Worcester, Massachusetts. Her mysteries revolve around her gypsy mother, dead in a fire that destroyed her parents’ home; her unkempt father, one cheap apartment away from homelessness; and her older brother, a social outcast among his peers, a drug addict and runaway, lost and presumed dead. To a person, members of this family do not live by ordinary conventions.
There’s plenty of crime in the family background and in the story – black market dealing, thievery, kidnapping, murder – but this is a mere backdrop for Natalie, who observes and reports but doesn’t judge. Also, over the generations, suspicious fires have stalked the family. “Wherever gypsies go, fire follows,” says Natalie’s mother.
Given the ill-assorted individuals around her, it’s no surprise that Natalie herself is aggressively unconventional. She wears thrift-shop clothing assembled into bizarre costumes and has furnished her apartment with child-sized furniture. She suffers – or maybe that should be revels – in a condition called pica. The book jacket defines it as “…an abnormal desire to eat substances (as chalk or ashes) not normally eaten.” If only Natalie had stopped there . . .
This odd character plunges into the deep family mystery when her father receives a phone message from someone whose voice sounds like her dead mother’s rasp, followed by the discovery of cryptic notes hidden in a flame-scarred cigarette case and written on a rolling paper.
Propelled by the phone message, he takes her to the gypsy community where her mother grew up. Marrying him made her mother an exile, and Natalie doesn’t know the people there. He leaves her in the car and goes inside a church she’s never heard of to have a conversation with a person she doesn’t know. When he returns to the car, he’s confronted by a gypsy fortuneteller whose place of business is across the street. Their quarrel culminates in an auto accident that solidifies Natalie’s resolve to unravel her family’s past.
This set-up for the plot cannot capture the terrific voice Tifft has created for Natalie – quirky, funny, observant, and understandably confused. For example, I particularly enjoyed a scene in which Natalie interprets her life through the koan-like platitudes found in a bag of fortune cookies: “The truth hides in small places. You must search to find it.” Truly.
Tifft never fails to surprise as Natalie sets out to discover what really happened to her mother, and whether she can find the answers in the closed-mouthed gypsy community. The more she investigates, the more secrets she encounters, involving not just her mother, but her missing brother too. Their present absences have roots in the past, and the narrative delves into the childhood of the siblings, as idiosyncratic and fraught as you’d expect, given the adult products. They were both, as Natalie says about her brother “…fashioned too near the fire.”
Despite all these impediments to leading a relatively normal life, Natalie does have a job of sorts and a boyfriend of sorts. She’s an assistant to an over-the-hill television weatherman, ‘Salt’ Pfeiffer. His attempts to get man-on-the-street interviews are priceless, and Natalie’s wicked sense of humor makes them more so. This is a job in which she feels superfluous, but in fact is truly needed, much as she is in her family life.
Natalie’s boyfriend Mitch, a psychiatrist in training, has recently broken up with her and thereby given up what might be his most fascinating subject. Yet he remains willing to help her out whenever she needs him, which is often.
Natalie is an engaging, unforgettable character, courageous in confronting the uncertainties of her life, wry and compassionate. Like so many novels in which characters embark on a quest, they are really searching for and most likely to find themselves. This is a literary mystery, not bound by the typical mystery/thriller conventions and, paradoxically, therefore, more revealing.
Genre purists may find this novel a bit far afield, because while crime lurks in the background, what’s front-and-center is Natalie’s pursuit of her intrafamilial mysteries. But for those who don’t mind an occasional stretch, this is a refreshing one.
Read our interview with Meghan Tifft here. The Long Fire comes out 25 August.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars