Reviewed by Ruth Latta
by SG Redling
Thomas and Mercer
Feb 2016, ISBN 978-1503950603, Paperback: 240 pages
Misfortune dogs Anna Ray, the first person narrator and protagonist of S.G. Redling’s new novel, Baggage. The author’s skilful withholding of information and time shifts hook the reader, who willingly suspends disbelief. Only in retrospect does one realize that the crime committed within the present of the story is improbably similar to an earlier crime that traumatized Anna.
Redling sets up the story by hinting at unpleasant revelations to come and introducing several interesting characters. As the novel opens, Anna is walking home from her job at Allegheny College, Gilead, West Virginia, “in no hurry” to get back to her apartment to check the mailbox and her answering machine. Both contain messages from an inmate of the Jefferson City Correctional Centre. Anna dreads a night of fighting and rough sex by her loud nightmare neighbours, Bobby and Katie, whom she has never met but who carelessly shared their intimate moments through the thin apartment walls. After tossing her latest letter into a pile on the floor near the closet, Anna settles down with one of the six bottles of wine she bought on the weekend, reflecting that her mother writes “a lot this time of year.” She hopes to hear from her cousin, Jeannie, who is 34 to her 29 and the “constant lifeguard at the drowning pool of [her] life.” There is a reference to a funeral that took place in February the previous year.
Anna is a witty, smart woman who understands herself and can assert herself when the need arises; for instance, when she is eventually questioned by police. She is an assistant in the college’s student development office, serving the English and Fine Arts departments. Though on paper the job involves coordinating opportunities for jobs, study abroad, scholarships and internships, much of it is handholding students in crisis over their work. Her boss in the two-person office is Meredith, a fiftyish motherly, resourceful woman who throws herself into her job.
While Anna is the most fully-rounded character in the E.M. Forster sense, the other major players are also presented in a nuanced way. This is so with Cousin Jeannie, formerly a professor at Eastern Allegheny, who now teaches English at Penn State, and who made Anna aware of a job opportunity the previous year. Jeannie has taken time to be with Anna on and around February 17 to help her through a sad and troubling anniversary. Warm, affectionate, funny, Jeannie does not nag Anna about the squalor of her apartment, but rather shops for food and sits and talks with her. Farther along in the novel, we see Anna coming as a refugee from a family crisis and fifteen year old Jeannie welcoming her as a younger sister. Throughout the novel, Jeannie’s kindness never wavers. When there is a hint that Jeannie may have something to do with a murder on campus, the reader prays it isn’t so.
At one point, Anna thinks that Jeannie and Professor Ellis Trachtenberg of the Art department had an affair. It turns out that the two are linked by their similar attitude to teaching, which is unlike Meredith’s nurturing approach. Both Jeannie and Ellis fail students who don’t do the work and make the grade. Jeannie treats “higher education like the revered institution it is, not like a sleep-away camp.” Their approach is significant to the outcome of the novel.
Reader admiration for Anna elevates as we see her helping Karmen Bennett, an art student who pleads for more pottery room hours to recreate a ceramic that didn’t work out. Her project involves four ceramic pieces, each representing parts of the human body, “ranked by their increasing ability to inflict pain.” The ceramics are a foreshadowing of the on-campus murder and an earlier one. Here we see the author’s ability to blend foreshadowing, setting and character development in a single scene.
Anna piques our interest and sympathy in another scene with Professor Ellis Trachtenberg. He has been chatting her up at staff mixers, lectures and student art shows, and arrives at her office to surprise her with a book that she has already read about an obscure art movement she dislikes. Anna gives him high marks for his approach, indicating that he would choose a woman for her mind first and foremost, but rejects him. Thinking of earlier instances of people wanting her to reveal her past for their own perverse satisfaction, she thinks, “He wants in my head and that is one place I will never let him be. Bed, yes. Head, no. I have yet to find a socially acceptable way to explain that.” She shows her sense of humour by noting his flicker of puzzlement that she is not responding appropriately to his charm, not “following the laws of evolution and choosing him as a suitable mate.”
Redling’s fast-paced novel is full of well-wrought scenes, including one in which Anna’s artist father finds her colouring an outline of a Cezanne that she saw at an art museum. He flies into a rage and destroys her prized book because she is colouring rather than creating. In the end all these threads are tied together. More than just another thriller/suspense novel, Baggage takes us deep into a woman’s psyche in an insightful depiction of a survivor.
For information about Ruth Latta’s books, including her four mysteries, visit http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com