After you’ve closed the covers on a book and still feel it two days later, you’ve been privy to something special. If you’re still thinking about it by the third day, you’ve been exposed to compelling questions. And when you talk about it ceaselessly with friends, you’ve been seriously privileged.
In Things Unseen by Gar Anthony Haywood is such a book. But don’t expect his usual award-winning crime output, think instead of a work of literature with both horizontal and vertical layers. The horizontal layers are story stuff—mystery, conflict, and stakes; the vertical tiers are epistemology (how do we know what we know?), the consequences of faith or lack thereof, and what to make of the unknowable. However, it is not a religious screed or polemic. Instead, it frames its questions and issues within, and as a byproduct of an engrossing story.
The book’s premise has a ghost-story vibe but with deeper, delicious complexity. A child is killed in an accident and suddenly reappears as if nothing happened, and only four people remember his death from the accident. All traces of it—news coverage, physical features of the place it occurred, his funeral, his grave, his surroundings, and everyone who knew him have no idea the accident ever occurred, as if time was backspaced and memories erased, allowing the accident and earthly changes following it to be re-written or continued as if never occurred. The book plunges immediately into the story within the first few pages when the boy, Adrian, comes into his normal classroom and causes his teacher to act out in panic, questioning her own reality. She is one of the four who knew about his death, yet here he is. The others are his parents and the man who lost control of his car that killed the boy.
The mother was the first to recognize the miracle, and fears anything less than full-throated acceptance may be tantamount to questioning God’s grace and thereby undo it. Gradually the father also accepts it, and later, the driver of the injurious car. However, the teacher, whose hysterical response upon seeing Adrian in the classroom caused her suspension and probable end of her career, does not cotton to miracles. She is an atheist and has concluded a fraud by the parents is afoot. The story proceeds propulsively as the parties contend with their secret knowledge and consequences of public perception if discovered, while a reporter and the teacher attempt to uncover the nature of what really happened, the revised history, and apparently stunning resurrection.
The prose is clean with just enough writerly flourishes to clue the reader he/she’s reading a skilled novelist versus a newspaper account. E.g., “she smiled a small flag of surrender,” “the bitter aftertaste of failure,” “mining the business of others for her own entertainment,“ etc. Changing points of view among characters are deftly handled. I liked the short chapters. Sub-plots, stakes, suspense, and mystery reveal a sure-handed author. Those features alone will grip the reader, yet the book offers so much more.
The deeper layers add a mélange of thought to the entertaining plot: Is there such a thing as a god? If so, how does God express his will? Given that one may believe so, does God intervene in human affairs? Sometimes? Never? How? What is grace? Do miracles exist, or only inexplicability, the answers to which may someday be discovered but meanwhile no more mysterious than some inchoate “god.”
There were a few lapses, almost quibbles; nor do they detract from the story or intellectual challenges between the lines: A dialogue between the father and a co-worker was uncharacteristically a little tell-y, albeit only one page; a typo of antenna vs. antennas or antennae; I would have liked the rabbi, a minor character introduced late in the book, to have been foreshadowed.
“The mighty novel” is called that in part because of the thought it requires, by which I mean that plot, sub-plots, characterizations, and other elements must be thoroughly thought through for plausibility that makes sense, not lead to dead-ends, and without raising more questions than they resolve. This author clearly has given deep thought to thorny, philosophical issues, as well as the basis on which they could be challenged. I liken it to a lawyer cross-examiner who must know in advance what the witness will say, where assertions might be inconsistent and how to counter them, and how to frame the questions to result in suitable answers. In Things Unseen is, indeed, rendered in such masterly fashion.
To conclude, Gar Anthony Haywood’s In Things Unseen is a well-written, wonderful and tense drama with enough food for thought to keep the reader’s mental motors going long after the covers are closed. It has already led to spirited discussions between me and friends. This book is why book clubs were created. It would also make a marvelous movie.
Five stars to author Gar Anthony Haywood.