The psyche is the “ultimate puzzle,” observes Lana Granger, the narrator of Lisa Unger’s brisk, crafty and fascinating psychological thriller “In the Blood.” And, indeed, Unger’s tale bears out Lana’s observation. For all the questions the author poses in her plot — and there are many — what ultimately confounds, unsettles and jolts the reader is the mystery of its narrator’s mind.
Lana is a senior at Sacred Heart College in a small, Upstate New York town known as The Hollow. Soon after the story begins, Lana’s bisexual college friend Beck disappears. The two had quarreled. Has Beck been harmed by Lana, who had occasionally been intimate with her?
Then there is Luke, an 11- year-old wild child whom Lana looks after to earn money to pay her college bills. Is he, as Lana’s professor of abnormal psychology suspects, a psychopath leading her to peril? Is he also the strange baby we read about in an unidentified mother’s vivid and disturbing diary? And what troubles Lana’s home life? Did her father, awaiting a lethal injection on death row, really commit the crime for which he has been condemned: killing her mother?
“In the Blood” offers plenty of good, scary fun — scenes that will make readers jump — as intrepid Lana seeks answers to the puzzles in her life. She snoop-searches an empty house, an attic and a shed deep in the woods, feeling all the while that someone is watching her.
Ultimately, though, these matters are McGuffins that Unger, a canny plotter, uses to divert readers from the book’s overriding theme, which centers on Lana. It gives away little to reveal this focus, since, as Lana narrates, she alludes constantly, yet vaguely, to something traumatic in her past.
Among her aunt’s “sunny, golden-haired” family, Lana is, as she vividly puts it, “a cockroach in the batter of their sweet lives.” Pages later, she says that “horrible things” have happened to her. And then, for anyone who may have missed the point, she adds, “You see, I am a person with secrets.”
As to exactly what those secrets are, Lana stints on clues, a smart strategy on Unger’s part to keep the reader following along.
In the meantime, Lana’s nature holds the reader’s interest. A little gloomy at times, she also has an appealing, feisty side. In particular, she rails against any notion that she’s a bad seed — that her problems are in the blood. And so we wait for her to remove the mask of her superego.
Lana’s spunk shows as she looks after her charge, whose history of malevolence might keep even a singing nun at bay. In second grade, Luke bullied an overweight girl so mercilessly that her parents transferred her to another school. In fourth grade, he tripped his pregnant teacher and told her that he hoped she miscarried.
Menacing as Luke is, Lana inexplicably finds herself fond of him, sensing that they’ve met before. She’s comfortable enough with him that she assents when he asks her to join him in a scavenger hunt. Guiding her pursuit are awkwardly composed poems that someone — perhaps Luke himself — is writing. The verses send her into a wooded area near campus. Here Lana is unnerved by more than just the dark, secluded setting: Certain lines and references in the poems suggest its writer knows too much about her past.
Unger shrewdly makes Lana a psychology major with a 4.0 grade-point average and plans for postgraduate work. This career choice lets Lana dispense rather sophisticated psychological insights about herself and others, laying the groundwork for a reveal that will surely elicit a satisfied gasp from the reader.
Not only does Lana’s back story provide insight into her life, but it also illuminates the travails of the other characters in ways that will be pertinent for many readers. These perceptions add depth to the book, upgrading it from a thriller that’s purely entertaining to one that resonates far beyond the scope of Unger’s well-constructed plot. Early in the tale, Lana refers to behavior as “a very complex mosaic.” “In the Blood” is a complex mosaic as well, one that’s tricky, arresting and meaningful.
Bartell is a freelance writer based in Manhattan.
IN THE BLOOD
By Lisa Unger
Touchstone. 342 pp. $25.99