The Darkness Surrounds Us

Written by Gail Lukasik
Review by Sarah Johnson

Overly curious. Inquisitive. Too assertive for her own good. These are unwelcome qualities for a woman in late 1918. But Nellie Lester is on a mission, determined to live bravely and uncover her family’s secrets. She narrates this moody gothic novel, the author’s fifth mystery, explaining why she left her post at a contagion ward in Chicago, caring for victims of the Spanish flu, to become the nurse-companion to an expectant wife on a tiny, isolated island in Lake Michigan. Recently, Nellie had found a photograph of herself as a child alongside her late mother and an unknown man, all dressed plainly, labeled “Harmony, Michigan, 1894: Mary, John, and Anna.” Having no memory of the place or the names, Nellie grabs the opportunity to go there herself and search for clues to her past.

But Harmony, as Nellie discovers, was “named for what it wanted to be, not what it was.” Her employer, William Thiery of Ravenwood Manor, is a timber magnate who doesn’t tolerate opposition, and the other residents aren’t much friendlier. For mystery fans who soak up creepy atmosphere, this has it in spades, between Nellie’s spartan turret bedroom, the formidable housekeeper (and her terrible food), and questions about the disappearance of her predecessor, Irene, pointedly described to Nellie as “nosy like you.” Desperate for a friend, Nellie confides in Theo Proctor, a local journalist turned healer, despite not fully trusting him.

In this skillfully plotted novel, Nellie unpicks two mysteries, that of Irene and her mother, which leads her to research a severe religious sect, the Harmonites. The conclusion is hard to guess. Nellie has an incautious streak, and there are few mentions of northern Michigan’s wintry beauty to relieve the grim atmosphere. But this is a solid tale with appeal for fans of Midwestern gothics, like those by Wendy Webb and Jaime Jo Wright.