||Thrills to Chill the Summer
by Desmond McNally
The trend these days is for people to take early retirement. This latest offering from Cynthia Thayer might give some folks pause for thought and maybe it'll even convince them to change their plans.
The popular conception is that retirement, at its best, is a time of leisure, travel and relaxation; at its worst, it is simply boring. None of the above characterises the retirement experience in this novel.
Carl and Jessie have retired. They are two intelligent, well educated ex-professionals who live by a lake in the country. They love one another and are comfortable with their lot in life. Both are keen artists. We do learn, however, that Carl is reticent when it comes to discussing his wartime experiences; he reveals only that all of his family members had been shot in the back. The cadence of Thayer's narrative accurately portrays the couple's relationship, the peaceful setting and even the time of year in which the story takes place. The only blemish in their lives is daughter Sylvie, who has been diagnosed as Schizophrenic, and whose violent tantrums have resulted in her hospitalization in an institution that cares for those with this type of affliction.
Carl and Jessie's idyllic existence is jolted by the news that Sylvie has discharged herself from her group home and is nowhere to be found. It is at this point that the atmosphere imperceptibly cools and darkens. Noises are heard in the woods, and we're not told whether they are real or imagined.
When a stranger called Jonah arrives at the door asking for help, the feeling of unease grows. He is invited to join Carl and Jessie for a meal, and then manages to convince the couple to allow him to stay overnight. What ensues is shown to us through the eyes of Carl and Jessie. They take turns describing what transpires in their immediate present, and these accounts are interwoven with their memories of past events. Jonah's starts to act strangely. He becomes verbally abusive, then threatening, and finally finds Carl's gun, using it to frighten and humiliate the couple further. Suddenly Jonah announces that he not only knows Sylvie but that they are in love. His declaration horrifies Carl and Jessie even more than the fact that they've been turned into captives in their own home.
This scene is vividly portrayed by Thayer who constructs a surreal tableau involving Carl bound to a chair, and Jessie naked, while Jonah is maniacally menacing them at one moment and watching videos the next.
Jessie attempts a number of unsuccessful escapes, demonstrating a previously hidden resolve. Carl in the meantime relives his wartime past-a mosaic of pain, cruelty, death and daring. Jessie, by continuing to plot and machinate a way to wrest control from Jonah, exhibits superhuman courage and the capacity to endure and function despite fear and pain.
At the tale's finale, we are witness to the physical and emotional detritus of twenty-four hours of torment, and we wonder how the human spirit will be able to rescue itself and reestablish some sort of balance.
Thayer has written an excellent psychological thriller that has echoes of Minette Walters. To use a hackneyed phrase, it's a "real page turner". I had one quibble only: it didn't seem credible that the creepy Jonah could so easily inveigle a bed for the night from two intelligent individuals.
I am now going to discuss with my wife whether or not to come out of retirement!