(Reviewed by Judi Clark OCT 13, 2002)"Grief changes everything. It's a brutal metamorphosis. A caterpillar at least gets the time to spin a cocoon before its internal organs dissolve and its skin sloughs off. I had no warnings."
Aud Torvingen is grieving. She lost the love of her life, Julia, without warning, when a bullet hit her, causing a hole bigger than a fist. She lingered for six days and then died from massive stroke. Mixed with bottomless grief is guilt. We understand this from the beginning. But we are quite a way into the novel before we learn that Aud was in what she describes "the blue place" when the shooting occurred; that is, she was more wrapped up in causing harm to another than she was in protecting her love, her charge. Aud, as she tells us, rhymes with "proud."
For five months Aud has cocooned herself in the North Carolina woods where she had inherited a cabin located in the western part of the state, basically the Appalachian Mountains. She is meticulously restoring the cabin, focusing on each task as if that is the only real thing in the world. She's had no interaction with another this whole time. On this particular day, when she hears a car engine winding its way up the mountain road, she collects her most valuable tools, hides them away and walks into the woods. She stays until twilight, finally emerging when it seems that her visitor isn't leaving; and spying, realizes that she knows who he is. He is a person that once knew her Julia.
Dornan is actually a long time "friend" of hers from Atlanta. (We soon figure out that a character weakness for Aud is that she has never understood the nature of friendship.) Dornan has come to ask Aud to find his missing fiancé, Tammy. Aud doesn't particularly like or respect Tammy, despite Dornan's protestation that she is a lot smarter than she appears. Furthermore, Tammy's done the disappearing act, running off with other men, before. But as Dornan points out, this is different, Tammy always lets him know where she is, and she always comes back. Up until two months ago she was still calling Dornan, even if it was to say how happy she was with her new job and how much she liked Geordie Karp, her employer. So why would she stop calling? Why would she not give him a forwarding address, or telephone number? No, something isn't right about this and certainly the police do not have time to look into his hunch. Ordinarily it would be easy to draw the conclusion that she changed her mind about marrying him.
Because of her promise to Julia, Aud agrees to go to New York City to find Tammy. Not to drag Tammy back to Dornan, but to at least find out if she is all right. This she does without much effort (that is, outside of the effort it takes to be around people, to be in the world), more due to her professional experience as an ex-cop than to the obviousness of Tammy's location. Dornan's instincts prove correct; Tammy is in trouble. Geordie Karp uses his professional training in psychology not only professionally -- he advises retail stores where to place merchandise to make people purchase more -- but also to control woman. He is just as successful in his hobby as he is in his career. Actually we learn, that what Geordie Karp has done to Tammy is nothing compared to another one of his projects; after all, Tammy is a consenting adult.
One of the things that I like about this book is that it doesn't dwell on how sick Geordie Karp is - that's a given - or even go into extended descriptions of his behavior. We know enough about what Geordie Karp has planned to give motivation to the plot. Read this book because you want to be in Aud's head, not Karp's.
Aud is an ex-cop turned professional bodyguard and probably does some other not-so-easily-identified (or legal) jobs. Let's just say she doesn't really talk about this but you get the impression that she has more than sufficient money in the bank and she is about the toughest women I've ever run across in fiction. She was introduced in Griffith's previous novel, which I did not know to read first. Actually it wasn't until I was about half way through Stay that I realized that it was a sequel to The Blue Place -- so much for me doing my homework before hand! I guess this attests to how well it stands on its owen as well.
Stay is easily categorized within the thriller genre, the plot outline and actions warrant that, but strictly calling it a thriller does injustice to this novel. If this is about anything, it is about change; specifically Aud coming to terms not only with Julia's death but also with who she is or had been at the time of losing Julia. This was a woman who easily slipped into and probably derived pleasure from "the blue place." She is now finding that the person she had been doesn't feel as comfortable as it did her whole life. From reading the intro words at the beginning of Part One, you can draw the analogy that her old self is much like the body of a larva, too immature to further serve the best interest of the adult insect. Only, as a human, Aud doesn't have a natural process to undergo, nor even any indication that this is what she should do. All she knows is her grief and guilt. Falling in love with Julia began something more in Aud; but it's in the events after Julia's death that the true metamorphous takes place. Julia's "ghost," Tammy, and later a young girl named Luz are all catalysts that aid in her understanding of who this new self is in relation to the world. So whereas, a true thriller is driven by the suspense of the plot, in this one the plot plays secondary to the character development - but don't worry, you get pulled along as well as in any drama. Griffith doesn't forget to pack the novel with enough action to keep the pages turning.
The amazing thing about Griffith's writing is how absolutely real this character feels to me, even though all logic tells me she'd likely never exist. When she is violent, she is as methodological about it as when she's framing a window. But she's also something else. I think the word I'm searching for here is humane. Or maybe it's perceptive. After Aud removes Tammy from Geordie Karp's place, Aud is stuck with her, a woman whom she's never much cared for or respected. Despite that, she exercises a unique skill in helping this now timid woman gain back her self-confidence, and even find a better self. Aud isn't just tougher than tough; she's just plain competent. She handles tools properly and with skill, hooks up her trailer home to the back of her truck, finds people who can't be found, she can disable every square inch of a man (some images are hard to forget), or when necessary, rebuild self-esteem in a fellow human; but in all her actions, not once would anyone mistake her for a male. This is not a female taking on a male role; Aud is clearly a woman, just a really different kind of woman.
There's one last aspect of Griffith's writing that I want to mention: it is tight and gorgeous. And it remains so whether its describing a setting, getting in the head of her character, making social observation or simply just telling us what's going on: "I will find her, I had told Dornan, but all I'd found was a shell. I had no idea how to go about finding the rest." And even though I've made little of the plot, it gets high marks as well. Griffith adds a distressing twist to a possible motive for adopting orphaned immigrants. So there you have it, between the characters, plot and setting, I guess you can tell I give high marks to this novel. But then, I was already her fan -- Slow River has never left my mental landscape. I promise that I'll pick up a copy of The Blue Place, but I can't help but wonder/hope that Griffith will write a sequel to Stay. I believe there is yet more to tell about Aud.
- Amazon readers rating: from 25 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Stay at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
Aud Torvingen novels:
Bending the Landscape Series:
- Bending the Landscape: Fantasy (1997)
- Bending the Landscape: Science Fiction (1998)
- Bending the Landscape: Horror (2001)
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- The official Web site for Nicola Griffith
- MostlyFiction.com review of Slow River
- A review of The Blue Place
- January Magazine interview on The Blue Place
- BoldType essay by Nicola Griffith on writing Stay
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About the Author:
Nicola Jane Griffith was born in Yorkshire, England in 1960 and grew up in Leeds. When she was seventeen, she went off to the university to earn a science degree, but left after a couple months. While in England, she taught women's self-defense, led creative writing workshops, and was the singer and songwriter for a band.
She first came to the Unites States in 1988 for the Clairon Workshop in Science Fiction and Fantasy.
Her short fiction has been published in the United Kingdom and the United States and has been translated into several languages. Her first novel, Ammonite, won a Lambda Literary Award and the 1993 Tiptree Award. Slow River was written with the aid of grants from Georgia Council for the Arts and the Atlanta Bureau of Cultural Affairs. Slow River won the 1996 Nebula Award.
She lives in Seattle, Washington with her partner, SF writer Kelley Eskridge.