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Book Review: Jane Was Here by Sarah Kernochan

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Graynier, Massachusetts doesn’t make much of a first impression. There’s “no design or reason for anything to be where it is.” Wandering down its “anarchic streets” might get you “to the heart of Graynier, which is noteworthy because there is no heart. No center. Businesses are scattered among residential neighborhoods, with no attention to zoning.” Not only is there no there there (to cite Gertrude Stein’s observation about Oakland), there’s no there everywhere. But it is freeway close.
And that just happens to be good enough for vacationing but rudderless website designer Brett Sampson, who, on a mission to bond with his accompanying but estranged 10-year-old son Collin, thinks giving in to an impulse to take the exit less traveled – the only one that happens to lead into Graynier — will make all the difference. As he looks ahead for accommodations, a quick glance in the rear view mirror would have told him that – to paraphrase Bob Dylan – “the past was close behind.” And gaining speed.

And it’s not the solace of recollection and nostalgia catching-up. Get your warm and fuzzy somewhere else: Sarah Kernochan’s highly original and unpredictable Jane Was Here is not your father’s horror story. Its inexorably harrowing and impelling forces drive a storyline about reincarnation, ghostly presences, the paranormal, and matters of misery, mystery, and imagination raring to overwhelm the denizens of an anti-Mayberry locale in which an enigmatic and ethereal young woman calling herself Jane shows up at Brett and Collin’s rented Victorian house. After she starts making claims that it was her childhood home — and alluding to some memories of growing up in the town she has never been to before in her life – she increasingly insinuates herself into the Sampsons’ lives. So much for Brett and Collin at the ol’ fishin’ hole.

But this is not going to be the one that gets away. Virtually ignoring his wayward and willful son – who really couldn’t be happier about his new freedom anyway — the intrigued Brett find himself more and more engaged in another kind of expedition, helping Jane delve into the eerie mystery of who she was and seemingly is, and by extension, exploring the book’s thematic bearing of yesterday upon today. It’s not exactly a fruitless endeavor either, as it turns out, for Jane’s memories reawaken a long-buried and startling secret, revealing a link to an attractive girl who vanished from Graynier in 1853.

While Jane mulls over the possibility of a past life incarnation, there are implications for other citizens of the town as they too plunge toward the novel’s shocking conclusion, getting caught in dire circumstances and a temporal collision between the past and present. Collin becomes friends with an Indian girl named Gita Poonchwalla, who converts him to her crackpot cult that assigns a particularly nefarious role to Jane. Local residents, including caretaker Hoyt Eddy and “town slut” Marly Walczak, get unwittingly — and gradually gruesomely — tangled in the far-flung web Jane weaves. Private investigator Dick Fancher arrives and claims she is actually Caroline Moss, a missing autistic woman – though there’s more, much more, to the story.

And whether Jane Was Here, there, or seemingly everywhere at once, no matter what effect this sometimes spectral presence has had on people and how much she’s succeeded in her personal and often ostensibly unearthly endeavors, the story hits the ground running as the author skillfully fashions and deftly juggles the interactions between the main characters and secondary characterizations that lend color and augment substance, and seamlessly interweaves the narrative and the subplots that add layered richness and support the main story.

Furthermore, Kernochan, an Oscar winning filmmaker and screenwriter whose credits include the supernatural thriller What Lies Beneath, brings out the same kind of craftsmanship to this nerve-jangling but cohesive volume of paranormal suspense, with its cinematic vividness and well-considered attention to detail. The twists and turns have their own twists and turns, and the butler did it as sure as a bolt from the blue. All you’ll really know, however, is that you must keep reading… and lose a little sleep while you try to ignore those pesky bumps in the night…

Jane Was Here will be available June 14, 2011

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch