American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett (*Kind thanks to Orbit for providing a review copy*, Release date-Feb. 12th, 2013)-Welcome to the little town of Wink, New Mexico. The houses are perfect, and at first glance, so are the people. Oh, yes, Wink is quite a town, but you won’t find it on any map, and if you stay, you may start noticing odd things out of the corner of your eye and shadows where there should be none (and you really shouldn’t go out after dark). Happiness seems to come easy to the denizens of Wink, but that happiness is soon to be threatened, because there’s been a murder, something is awakening, and the other citizens of Wink are growing very restless.
Ex-cop Mona Bright’s father recently passed away. She’s not too upset, he was a bastard after all, but when she finds out she’s inherited a house in Wink, New Mexico, no one is more shocked than she is. She’s even more surprised to find out that the house belonged to her mother, who committed suicide when Mona was very young. Mona remembers a frail, wispy, shell of a woman, but now is finding out that there was much, much more to her mother, and she’s hoping to find some answers at the house, and possibly from the people in Wink. Turns out her mother was involved with the Coburn National Laboratory and Observatory in a professional capacity, and this now defunct lab overlooks the lovely town of Wink.
The idea of settling down is a bit of a strange one to Mona, after being on the run from a tragic past for so long, but as she settles in to Wink, she starts to think it may not be a bad place to stay, just for a while. After all, she’s got her dad’s beloved 1969 cherry-red Dodge Charger, and a house that used to belong to her mother, which is a great start, right? Well, not so fast. Soon Mona realizes that all is not what it seems in Wink. In fact, some pretty damn weird things are going on. After a particularly eye opening garden party, Mona begins to discover a hidden side of this funky little town. In fact, she discovers that the huge lightning storm that destroyed much of the town many years ago happened on the same day that her mother died. Coincidence? Maybe, but Mona’s cop senses (once a cop, always a cop) are tingling and when she asks for help, thinking she’s surely lost her mind, things get really weird. After all, in Wink, lightning means something completely different than an impending thunderstorm.
Mona soon makes the journey to Coburn, convinced that her mother was key to the strangeness that envelopes Wink and it’s too-perfect-to-be-true inhabitants. Turns out reality isn’t quite as concrete as one might think and Coburn was the site of some very interesting experiments. Mona finds allies in some pretty unlikely places, and discovering the truth about Wink, her mother, and even herself, will change everything.
The Troupe, Robert Jackson Bennett’s wonderful 2012 novel was one of my favorites of the year, so I had high expectations for American Elsewhere. Luckily it far exceeded those expectations. From the moment I was introduced to Mona Bright, I was hooked. Mona is a woman without a rudder, deeply scarred by personal tragedy, and touched with more than a little self-loathing. She also (to my utter delight) has a bit of a foul mouth (she drops f-bombs with the ease of a sailor), an itchy trigger finger, and razor sharp instincts, which serve her quite well as she gets deeper into the mysteries of her past and the truth about Wink.
There is indeed another presence in Wink, and the word “pandimensional” pretty much says it all. What starts off as an invasion story, and even a murder mystery, becomes something much deeper, even poignant, sometimes with a startling, darkly comic sensibility. There’s a particular part where the narrative puts you in the homes and hearts of a few select Wink residents, and the scene of a husband who loves nothing more than tinkering with his lime-green 1966 Cadillac Eldorado and the wife who lives for her husband’s happiness. It’s darkly funny and deeply tragic, and so very American. Robert Jackson Bennett has the gift of taking his characters, turning them inside out, and baring their souls, in tragedy and joy, and as other, and powerful, as these extraterrestrial beings are, they are nonetheless undeniably taken with us silly, weak humans and our endless pursuit of happiness. A sense of intense longing, for something better, something bigger, is woven through this novel about one woman’s self-discovery, belonging, the ties of family and community, the American Dream, and yes, alien invasion.
American Elsewhere is a big, bold novel, by turns gorgeous and grotesque, terrifying and tender, and it’s also a razor sharp sci-fi suspense story with literary sensibility and a healthy helping of horror. Settle in, fellow readers, ‘cause you’re in for a helluva ride.
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