Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Book Review: The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian

Publisher's Summary:
    From the bestselling author of The Double Bind, Skeletons at the Feast, and Secrets of Eden, comes a riveting and dramatic ghost story.
     In a dusty corner of a basement in a rambling Victorian house in northern New Hampshire, a door has long been sealed shut with 39 six-inch-long carriage bolts.
     The home's new owners are Chip and Emily Linton and their twin ten-year-old daughters. Together they hope to rebuild their lives there after Chip, an airline pilot, has to ditch his 70-seat regional jet in Lake Champlain after double engine failure. Unlike the Miracle on the Hudson, however, most of the passengers aboard Flight 1611 die on impact or drown. The body count? Thirty-nine – a coincidence not lost on Chip when he discovers the number of bolts in that basement door. Meanwhile, Emily finds herself wondering about the women in this sparsely populated White Mountain village – self-proclaimed herbalists – and their interest in her fifth-grade daughters. Are the women mad? Or is it her husband, in the wake of the tragedy, whose grip on sanity has become desperately tenuous?
     The result is a poignant and powerful ghost story with all the hallmarks readers have come to expect from bestselling novelist Chris Bohjalian: a palpable sense of place, an unerring sense of the demons that drive us, and characters we care about deeply.
      The difference this time? Some of those characters are dead.

I've been a fan of Chris Bohjalian since I first listened to his novel Secrets of Eden (release date 02/02/10) about 18 months ago, since that time I've gone back and listened to a few more of his novels - enjoying each and finding each novel to stand as well on their own as well as a collection. The writing is always fresh with a homey new england quality that I do enjoy. Mr Bohjalian is of course a Vermonter - I often read his weekly column in the Burlington Free Press during the 1990's (when people actually read newspapers) focusing on rural and Vermont community life. In reality he lives about 35 miles south of me in Lincoln, Vermont, a statement which should have led me to his novels a lot sooner perhaps, but nevertheless...

I'm going to start at the end of the audiobook, because that is where this nugget lies, though no worries my friends, this is not a spoiler. On the audible audiobook version there is an interview (a conversation really) between the Random House Audio producer Kelly Gildea and Chris Bohjalian about the novel and about his path as an author. I dug up that interview (on youtube) and have posted the video below - definitely worth a listen or viewing before launching into the novel. The part that I found most fascinating was that the idea for this novel started with a real-life door in Chris Bohjalian's real-life basement in an old victorian home in Vermont that had in the basement an old wooden door, sealed with thirty-nine carriage bolts. Mr Bohjalian's door revealed 'absolutely nothing' but the seed of the story began - though it wasn't until that January morning in 2009, when Captain Chesley Burnett "Sully" Sullenberger so famously (and successfully) downed his plane on the Hudson River with zero fatalities that Mr. Bohjalian knew how the story of door would be told. It's an interesting and compelling story on it's own and well worth the 12 minutes of your time to watch.

The Night Strangers started strongly, the build from character and plot introduction to investment in the plotline was incredibly short. From the moment the first chapter opens with a flock of geese, a little girl named Ashley, a Dora The Explorer backpack and a commuter jet pilot named Chip you are sucked into the story. You know that the ditching of flight 1611 is not going to have a happy ending, you know that thirty nine people aboard the jet will die on impact or by drowning in Lake Champlain. You can picture the sky, you can picture yourself sitting on the deck of the boathouse in downtown Burlington watching the horrific events unfold in the sky above and lake in front. You can imagine the down-home folksy people of Berlin, New Hampshire welcoming the pilot and his family to the White Mountains - you can feel the sinister presence at home in the Linton's basement. And there you are at 3am listening to the last 36 minutes of the novel because you have to know how this whole thing ends. You need to know that the girls are OK, that Chip and Emily survive the forces that surround them in peaceful rural New Hampshire

One thing I've come to expect in one of Chris Bohjalian's novels is the element of surprise. It's the last 20 pages or 20 minutes of audio that is a surprise. Just when I think I've got the plot all worked out, there's a plot twist that brings the ending to a different direction altogether. The Night Strangers is no exception and now has a place as one of my favorite novels of 2011.

In the same Random House Audio interview Chris Bohjalian mentions that one of the narrators of The Night Strangers (Mark Bramhall) just so happens to be his favorite narrators, Mr. Bohjalian is apparently an avid listener of audiobooks - no doubt something he picked up on his lengthy commutes back and forth to his gig at the Burlington Free Press while he was writing a weekly column there.

The Night Strangers was written by Chris Bohjalian, narrated by Alison Fraser and Mark Bramhall and published by Random House and Random House Audio. The Night Strangers was released on October 4th, 2011  and has a runtime of 14 hours 7 minutes.

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