By Penelope Evans
July, 1998, $21 (288 pages) ISBN: 1-56947-121-5
Reviewed by Bill Wemple (5/98)
This book should have worked. Evan’s prose is spare and vivid, isolated sections are compelling, and her narrator is intriguing. But the book, like its narrator, is broken in places. The pieces don’t quite fit together.
Stewart Park is a slightly askew morgue photographer, obsessed with discovering the identity of a corpse stored in the morgue’s deep freeze. In the troubled, ugly world Evans draws, this stuttering, gentle loner is the only person who takes responsibility for anyone.
Stewart’s home life is as off-beat as his job. His sister has moved out, leaving him living alone with Dad, who is driven to dismantle everything in reach to see how it works. Stewart lives mostly in his bedroom, immersed in a computer game search for an Ice Maiden. He spends the rest of his time either fending off his father’s attempts to dismantle his computer or caring for his two young, innocently thuggish nephews that his sister’s live-in boyfriend abuses, and for the emaciated pit bull, Lady, which his father abuses. These are all important threads. Lady heroically moves the plot. Dad dismantles more than televisions, clocks and computers. Child abuse surfaces from it all like fetid cream. And the computer game somehow is connected to Stewart’s real-life search.
Late one night, the morgue calls Stewart to photograph the corpse of a recently drowned young woman with white hair and a Cesarean scar. Struck by her beauty, he sees her not as dead but "...drenched as a mermaid -- or better, something about to be hatched," and takes her photo home. No one appears to claim the body except for a fiftyish prostitute who looks at the corpse, bursts into tears, and leaves the morgue. Stewart’s convinced no one cares about this dead young mother and begins an obsessive search to identify her.
One Saturday, Stewart takes his nephews to play in a nearby park where he sees a three-year-old girl whose eyes and white hair eerily remind him of the corpse. With her is the middle aged prostitute from the morgue. Stewart is carrying a camera and excitedly snaps a photo of both of them before they flee the park.
The rest of the novel is chase. Who is this woman? Where does she live? What’s her relationship to the dead girl? Stewart explores the seamy side of the city looking for her and becomes depressed by its degradation. He’s charged with child molesting. When he finally thinks he’s found her, he’s beaten senseless by drug dealers. The novel eventually comes to a smashing, snarling conclusion that is thoroughly satisfying but unexpected.
If you start this book, you’ll finish it. Stewart’s an engaging character, and it’s worth finishing the book to find out what happens to him. He may be weird, but his world and ours could use more weirdness like Stewart’s. The book’s also worth reading to see what Stewart discovers. So on a plot level, FREEZING succeeds.
But you want Evans to succeed too. Stewart’s demeanor unaccountably frightens women. His computer game changes while the system is shut down. Imagery and references connect the Ice Maiden to the corpse. These things are at first intriguing, then puzzling, and finally downright irritating when Evans offers no sensible resolution to the questions they raise. They just hang there like models in a car ad, attractive and useless. If Evans had tied loose ends such as these, FREEZING would be a fine, thoughtful novel. Right now, it’s just a good story.
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