Lee Martin's second novel, The Bright Forever, is a painful, agonizing tale of guilt and loss, a tragedy told with all the tortured wisdom of hindsight and plenty of psychological damage to go around.
On a sleepy summer evening in a tiny Indiana town in the 1970s, nine-year-old Katie Mackey rushes out of her house and hops on her bike to return an overdue library book – never to return. Narrated with thirty years of retrospective by Henry Dees, the reclusive, lonely math tutor who had been giving Katie summer lessons, Martin's narrative plunges into the minds of each of its characters in order to reveal the darkness behind the pastoral facade.
Katie's father, Junior, owns the glassworks that employs a sizeable portion of the town's residents. Her family is akin to royalty in this simple world, envied by many for what seems to be a picture-perfect life. But pictures are only snapshots of reality, and only capture moments, not the entirety of existence. In this case, the reality is that Katie's family will never see her alive again – and the guilt crashes in on all of them, as well as many others. Because Martin's point isn't so much the mystery as it is the anguish: the mental instant replay that constantly has people saying "if only."
"If only" Katie's father hadn't wanted her to return her library books. If only her brother hadn't been angry at her and ratted her out over dinner. If only her bike chain had been fixed – if only.
In episodic, staccato narrative, Martin explores the secret lives that harbor clues to Katie's disappearance, beginning with Henry Dees himself. As Henry relates the story, he drops several hints about his own affection toward Katie that suggest more than one might expect – deep pains, loneliness, and perhaps a bit more interest than one might expect from a mere middle-aged tutor.
Meanwhile, we're also introduced to Claire Mains, a lonely widow scorned by other residents for remarrying "beneath" her status, together with her husband, Raymond, whose drug habit obscures odd blackouts and a seemingly alternate personality, even as he manages to become the closest thing Henry might consider a friend – but one who also takes advantage of Henry's weakness and alienation. Katie's parents face their grief along with memories dredged from their own past. And then there's Gilley, Katie's 17-year-old brother, who himself must deal with the guilty sense that he sent Katie to her death simply because she was bugging him, and who takes the opportunity to gain his father's approval by trying to avenge her murder.