In the spring of 1857, a starving man dressed in rags emerges from the forest surrounding a small American town. All he can tell people is that his name is Ben. Jump forward to autumn 2008. Television researcher and presenter, Julian Cooke, stumbles across the journal of Benjamin Lambert, a young English doctor and chronicler of a wagon train on the Oregon Trail which disappeared without trace in the harsh winter of 1856. Cooke’s discovery plunges him into a nightmare world of religious bigotry, racial hatred and political corruption in the highest places.
The Blair Witch Project meets The Tenderness of Wolves in this grisly but unputdownable thriller from the author of A Thousand Suns. The plot grips from first to last, though the pace slows somewhat in the middle of the book when Scarrow addresses the serious issues behind his unashamedly entertaining story. The contemporary and historical story strands are cleverly woven in a way which illustrates their parallels but also their divergences; on one level, the novel is about history itself, about how we misread it, and repeat it, and how it can be fatally distorted in the telling. I was quite unable to second guess the author until virtually the last chapter, and even then he leaves many questions hanging in the air. He is, as they say, a master of suspense, though one unresolved mystery did leave me slightly dissatisfied.
Scarrow’s style is spare and pacy, but there is some lovely, lyrical writing about the dangerous beauty of the Rocky Mountains in winter. Unlike some others writing in his genre, he is also strong on characterisation, as the screwball love story which weaves its faltering path through the novel illustrates.
Strongly recommended. I have been at a loss what to read since finishing it. Mind you, I wouldn’t take it with you if you’re planning a camping trip in a forest…