fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Keeper by Sarah Langan

Bedford, Maine, is a town with one industry: the paper mill. It’s been poisoning the water and air for generations, and workers have all sorts of physical complaints from breathing sulfur and other toxic fumes, but if anyone thought about it, they’d know that the recent closing of the mill probably dooms their town.

But no one’s thinking about the mill and the town’s economy. Instead, they’re all focused on Susan Marley. She’s a silent, beautiful woman in her mid-20’s who lives in squalor, turning a trick now and then to stay supplied with Campbell’s tomato soup, which she eats straight out of the can. She appears nightly in just about everyone’s nightmares, making her a sort of literary ghost of Dickens’s Jacob Marley.

One of the people most haunted by Susan is her sister, Liz. Liz is in high school, and is planning to put Bedford behind her as soon as possible and never come back, beginning with going to college at the closest state university. As The Keeper opens, Liz is visiting her father’s grave to tell him just that when Susan shows up, dressed for a summer day even though it’s March — still winter in Maine — and physically attacks Liz. It should have been you, Susan tells her sister, silently, and Liz knows exactly what Susan is talking about, there, at her father’s grave.

Susan haunts the town. Her mother knew, at some level, what her husband was doing to her daughter, but chose not to see it. Paul Martin, a high school teacher who is a barely functional alcoholic, has used Susan’s body frequently as an escape from his depressed wife; but he also tries to take care of her from time to time, buying food, cleaning her apartment up a bit. Liz is physically threatened by Susan more than once, in the real world and in her dreams. Liz’s boyfriend, Bobby, tries to help Liz deal with her fear of her sister, but his own fear makes him impatient with Liz. The entire town is uneasy; there are arguments between parents and children, bar fights; people drink too much, people hallucinate, teenagers let themselves fall deep into the darkness of their own apocalyptic thoughts.

This stew of guilt and economic depression swirls into a muddy puddle in a March storm that begins as the novel opens, an unrelenting rain that continues for exactly one week every year. Langan immerses the reader in the grayness of the cold winter rain that feels as if the skies are weeping. That depression combined with the fear Susan inspires in everyone in town makes this an atmospheric, moody novel. As disaster approaches, the questions become: who will live? Who will die? And what will Susan do?

The Keeper is Langan’s first novel, and it bears some of the marks of a freshman effort: it is too long, and Langan occasionally lets the tension slack, with too much back story and too little action, even though everything ultimately circles back and comes together at the end. Langan has such a facility with language and mood, though, that it is easy to understand why The Keeper was nominated for a Stoker Award for best first novel in 2006. Langan’s biography states she is currently studying for a doctorate in Environmental Health Science / Toxicology, an interest that allowed her to make the disaster in The Keeper believable. Between that degree and the MFA in creative writing she already holds, she is a formidable talent. My personal library already holds her other two novels, The Missing and Audrey’s Door, and you can bet I’ll be tackling them sooner rather than later, especially given that they both won Stoker Awards. And I’m delighted to read that she has a new novel in the works. This is a writer you’ll want to know.


  • Terry Weyna

    TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She reads all day long as an insurance coverage attorney, and in all her spare time as a reviewer, critic and writer. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, two rambunctious cats, and an enormous library.

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