Rare is the parent who has not at some point heard his child bitterly, tearfully castigate him with: "I wish you were dead!" Take as an example my own 4 1/2-year-old, who -- with that uniquely joyous demonicism known to children -- confronted me the other day, raising his hand in mock pistol fashion and saying: "Surrender or die!" "All right," I replied, lifting my arms to the sky, "I surrender." "Wrong," he said. "Bang! You die." If cowards die a thousand deaths, parents die a million.
But for most, this stage passes. Not so for the characters of Carolyn Banks' excellent new suspense novel, "Patchwork."
The novel opens with the central character, Rachel, a weaver of homemade quilts, in an Austin pawnshop, nervously trying to decide what handgun to buy to protect herself from her 19-year-old son. She is convinced Drew is on his way to the city to kill her. The proof behind her paranoia is that morning's news report that his father, her estranged husband, was discovered hideously murdered in his beach house, his body wrapped in a patchwork quilt. Drew, of course, has absented himself from the halfway house cum mental hospital where he has been undergoing therapy for a number of years. The quilt, she believes, is a message.
Rachel's fear is pervasive; she crisscrosses Austin in indecision, stumbling about in mixed parental agony and outright victim terror. She is further trapped by a skein of lies that she has told to her few friends in the city. Almost incapacitated by the guilt she feels for institutionalizing her son, she has lied to her new lover and her new business partner about her dirt-poor and despairing past. Her lie frightens her almost as much as the prospect of being stalked by the son she believes is surely psychotic.
As Rachel tries desperately to find safety, the scene shifts to Drew, casually collecting a runaway teen-age girlfriend and bearing down on Austin with a chilling singleness of purpose.
The action of the book is advanced in alternating visions; first Rachel, then Drew. The twin planes of their memories provide the backdrop for the story. They remember incidents, they recall conversations, difficult moments and hard times. But each has a singular vision. Memories that Rachel agonizes over may have little significance to Drew, while he fixates on recollections that Rachel can barely remember.
Banks portrays this emotional high-wire act admirably. The memories add immeasurably to the impact of the novel. The characters are fully realized; their dilemma heartbreaking at the same time that it is chilling.
Generally Banks, the author of three other praised thrillers, employs a clean, direct writing style that carries the reader along swiftly. Oddly, though, she is occasionally guilty of overwriting; instead of someone being "very" angry, she will have the person be "very, very" angry, or "very, very, very" angry. In a few instances, she resorts to brand-name writing. There are some sex scenes that, to this reader, merely distract from the true tension of the book.
But to her credit, Banks ably employs the description of the mother-son relationship to further her plot. Banks is delivering suspense in this book, not a treatise on mother-son relations. What she manages, within the structure of the thriller, to impart about the difficulties in raising problem children is relatively sophisticated.
There are many true touches in this fine book. Although its core is devoted to memory, the novel still races along. Banks does not waste anyone's time in these pages, bringing the plot quickly to a boil. By the time mother and son do confront each other, the reader is fully engaged in the war between the two.
But of course, as in every truly admirable thriller, there is a twist to all this, and things are not completely as they seem. The end is surprising, shocking and ultimately satisfying. "Patchwork" will probably appeal equally to mothers and sons. Or daughters and fathers, for that matter.