Review: An Unthinkable Thing, by Nicole Lundrigan
Viking, 2022. 338 pp. $18
Summer 1958 has treated eleven-year-old Tommie Ware cruelly. Not only has someone murdered his beloved Aunt Celia, his guardian and center of his life; within several weeks thereafter, he’s accused of killing the three people who take him into their home.
Set in a barely identified neighborhood presumably in Canada, this remarkably taut tale of psychological suspense unfolds mostly in reverse, peeling one thin layer at a time off Tommie’s recent past in the well-to-do Henneberry household just before the triple murder. I generally avoid child-at-risk narratives, and this one scared the daylights out of me, without a ghost or goblin in sight. The monsters here are human, or pretend to be.
Thomas Mayne Daly, Canada’s first juvenile court judge, 1891 photo. The Juvenile Delinquent Act of 1908 was the country’s first penal reform separating youthful from adult offenders (courtesy Library Archives Canada, PA-025707, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain in both the U.S. and Canada because of its age)
It’s not enough that Tommie’s a child who doesn’t know who his father was or why he didn’t stick around. Even before his Aunt Celia dies, one measure of his heartache is how he realizes she’s promiscuous and scoffs to himself at her claims to have found The One, a “real gentleman.” But his innocent perspective on it gets the reader—or this reader—right between the eyes:
I chewed my cookie and tried not to listen anymore because I knew my aunt wouldn’t recognize a proper gentleman if one jumped up and bit her. Mrs. King [a kindly neighbor] had already explained it all to me. How to charm a girl with flowers or chocolates. Holding open the door. Angling the umbrella so she didn’t get wet when it was raining. But the men my aunt invited up kept their shoes on. Called her ‘dolly.’ Slurped soda through their teeth. One took our Sears catalogue to the toilet after he’d eaten supper and didn’t bother to shut the door. My aunt seemed blind to it.
His mother, Esther, a live-in servant at the Henneberrys’ manse, gave him to Celia to raise but must now take him back. You begin to see why she parted with him in the first place and why his tenure there is untenable, despite her assurances. She cares about her son, but she lacks backbone, and the Henneberrys control her, for reasons Tommie can’t fathom. They control him too, and therein hangs a tale.
Raymond Henneberry, the head of this household, has inherited wealth and a successful dental practice. His philanthropy has kept his less savory side from public view, especially his womanizing and financial shenanigans. He exploits the boy’s presence, which he resents, for his own gain.
That’s partly why his unstable, pill-popping wife, Muriel, takes a shine to Tommie, whose name she can’t always remember. She dragoons him into chores like massaging her feet or joining her on bizarre errands by car, a risky business, given her addiction to drugs that impair her reflexes and sense of judgment.
To Tommie’s bewilderment, Mrs. Henneberry makes much of him, perhaps to annoy her only child, fifteen-year-old Martin, then pushes Tommie in his direction. He’s a most unsuitable playmate, for Tommie or anyone sentient, being a sadist pathologically obsessed with sex.
Were Tommie an adult, he’d have had a bushel of motives to kill the Henneberrys. Ironically, the bits of his trial transcripts that close several chapters reveal nothing of the kind; the victims’ predatory nature is secret. Rather, the testimony paints them as upstanding, tragic figures and young Tommie as cold-blooded, vile, and monstrous, transferring their faults to him. Allegedly, the forensic evidence has him locked in.
I wonder how an eleven-year-old can stand trial, presumably as an adult. I wonder too how the judge seems so variable in his rulings (not as erratic as Mrs. Henneberry, if on the same spectrum). But if you can get past that, you’re in for quite a ride, which doesn’t end until the novel’s final sentence.
Five years ago, I reviewed another fine (altogether different) novel of Lundrigan’s, The Widow Tree, and apparently, she’s written several others. Yet she says An Unthinkable Thing was the most challenging and complicated to write. Without having read the others, I believe her. I admire how she unearths the Henneberry madness grain by grain, in such a way that you understand what Tommie can’t, increasing the tension and your connection to him.
The boy’s passivity is enough to make you scream—I kept wanting to shake him and say, “Speak up, already!” But you also understand how life has undermined him at every turn. I find Esther, and her passivity, less comprehensible. Her opacity serves the storytelling—a drawback, I think—and though she’s on stage far more than her sister, Celia, I feel I know the latter better.
Conversely, Muriel Hennebury is floridly, blood-curdlingly disturbed; no mistaking anything, there. I feel some sympathy for her, but none for her son, who reminds me of a spoiled-brat Fascist-in-training, though that image, if intentional, comes across subtly. The narrative has other political messages, notably the connection between wealth and impunity before the law, and though I’m ready to believe the Henneberrys’ wealth serves to conceal their excesses, I’m skeptical about how far that seems to twist the investigation into their deaths and Tommie’s prosecution for them.
Despite that, An Unthinkable Thing compelled me to finish reading. If you pick it up, I defy you to put it down again.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.