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She walks these hills in a long black veil,
She visits my grave when the night winds wail
Nobody knows, nobody sees
Nobody knows but me
The Long Black Veil
Sung by Johnny Cash, Written by Danny Dill, Marijohn Wilkin
A famous song about keeping a secret provides the title for a novel detailing the after-effects of keeping secrets. Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan shifts focus from the past to the present as a group of college friends become involved in a harrowing, inexplicable locked-room disappearance at a ruined Pennsylvania prison. Years later, the participants have carried the scars of this loss forward into their diverse fates, with varying degrees of success or happiness. In the present day, when a body is finally discovered, they realize that one of them must be responsible for the murder. But who? “Nobody knows, nobody sees—nobody knows but me…”
Boylan’s literary mystery-thriller features an ensemble cast who remind us of our own college pals—some continue to connect, others have drifted apart. Long Black Veil zeroes in on the story of Quentin, a young man with a secret, who does a perfect Johnny Cash impression. The present-day narrator’s voice guides the reader into the life of Judith, who was not one of the original college group. Or, was she?
We watch the personalities of each of the group revealed: Maisie and Rachel and Wailer and Tripper and Quentin and Casey. College days are told with plenty of literary references, German phrases, and the floaty, amorphous nature of youth and gender and life still to be defined. The threads of burgeoning sex, sexuality, and identity are bright in this fabric. The present day sequences are more authoritative, the voices of the survivors of that day at the prison marked by their shared experience and the loss they cannot manage to shake. This is one of the strongest parts of the novel—it’s a distinctive switch from the “whatevs” college mindset and decision-making to the facts of adulting, the stains they cannot wash out, the frustrating aspects of who they are, for better and often for worse, that will not change. Do we like these characters? They don’t try to be likeable, and mostly, they aren’t.
Each character remains remarkably consistent in their self-involvement, their strengths, and their weaknesses throughout the novel, which builds to the discovery of the body after decades, stripping away of the lies and the losses–the plots and the long-held secrets behind every past and present. Boylan infuses these scenes with taut emotion and suspense as we hurtle towards a conclusion. She writes, “Oh, if only I could have kept it all locked down inside of me for just another five minutes, how different our lives could have been.”
There is some lack of balance between the careful set-up and the almost rushed feeling of the final confrontations and denouement. Such complex intertwining demands equally complex resolution, for full satisfaction for this reader.
Looking from a small group outward sets up the questions: is it so simple to leave your identity behind? At what cost? Jennifer Finney Boylan’s tale is a dark, twisty one, which like Eastern State Prison, can sway from scary, corroded ruin into new uses and new lives. The song says, “I spoke not a word, though it meant my life…” What are you keeping locked up inside? Are there secrets, like in the song, that you thought you were willing to carry to your grave? Under what circumstances would you reconsider?
Long Black Veil
By Jennifer Finney Boylan
Hardcover, 9780451496324, 304 pp.