- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 5, 2007

A psychiatrist’s case notes are the sign posts that guide readers through Chris Bohjalian’s The Double Bind (Shaye Areheart, $25, 384 pages), a spider’s web of a book that combines fantasy and tragedy. It tells the story of Laurel Estabrook, a young college student who is brutally attacked on a country road in Vermont and how she deals with her memories of the ordeal.

What makes this different is that buried within the tangle of the web in which Laurel becomes trapped are more mysteries. Like her discovery of photographs taken by a homeless man who proves to have ties to the assault. Like her insistence — which becomes an obsession — that the legendary characters of Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” were not fictional and are a part of her personal background.

Mr. Bohjalian has acknowledged the book has its roots in a column he wrote for the Burlington Free Press in Vermont about Bob “Soupy” Campbell, a homeless photographer with links to the Jazz Age. And he has woven his plot into a remarkable and at times confusing glimpse of a deeply scarred mind. Even the ploy of the psychiatric notes is no more than a flickering reminder that in the strange world of Laurel Estabrook, nothing and no one are quite as they seem.

The book ends on a chilling yet inevitable note as the psychiatrist reaches a tragic conclusion about Laurel’s shattered life, and within that sad denouement lies the question of whether she will find or accept reality.

The shadowed world of schizophrenia is explored with skill in Thomas H. Cook’s eerie yet subtle The Cloud of Unknowing (Harcourt, $24, 320 pages), a portrait of a disturbed family. The characters of David and Diana Sears are drawn against a background of the damage inflicted on them by their brutal father. The tragedy is deepened by the fact that Diana’s son, Jason, has inherited the family’s dark gene.

His death by drowning plunges his already troubled mother into apparent paranoia as she accuses her husband of murder. Meantime, the shadows surrounding them are dominated by her brother David, who is the chronicler of events moving inexorably toward more tragedy. It comes as no surprise to the reader that David and his sister are well matched in their psychological nightmare.

For them it proves a question of who is hearing and obeying the voices that live outside reality. The book is not so much suspenseful as intriguing in how it moves toward its predictable conclusion, and it is enhanced by the author’s capacity to create an atmosphere of mounting dread.

Quirke is his name and quirky is his character in Christine Falls (Henry Holt, $25, 352 pages), a portrayal of a dysfunctional Irish family in which nobody seems happy but everyone is interesting. John Banville, winner of the 2005 Man Booker Prize for his novel “The Sea,” was quoted in a recent interview as saying his venture into crime writing under a different name (Benjamin Black) was the beginning of a series.

However, the question may be whether the Quirke stable is gripping enough in its characterization to become anything more than a seedy dynasty.

A Dublin pathologist, Quirke has a bumbling charm as he gropes his way through an assortment of pubs and problems while sorting out the tangle of his personal relationships. These include his romantic nostalgia for the woman he didn’t marry, the hostility of Malachy, the man she did marry, and Phoebe, their daughter who has her own demons to cope with, and who is also a key to Quirke’s past and present difficulties. As a subplot develops in which an unfortunate and doomed infant is turned over to a highly unsuitable couple, Quirke finds himself in the middle of a baby smuggling ring.

He gets drunk frequently, which is no surprise given the setting, and gets badly beaten up by local gangsters before he tracks down the real villain of the piece. It is also appropriate to the scene that the chief sinner turns out to be an ostensible pillar of the community who is both dispassionate and philosophical about his perfidious behavior. Quirke remains not only quirky but oddly passive for a man of his personality and substantial stature.

The book reads as though the author enjoyed writing it, and its meandering pace may be explained by his envisioning it as a kickoff for a Quirke saga.

Muriel Dobbin a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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