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“I mean think about it, what do we even know about each other?”
With her second novel, Leslie Vryenhoek has crafted a page-turning thriller, entangling four characters, shifting between timelines of the 1970s, 1980s and close to present day. Their motives are specific to their backgrounds and experiences, but together they are on the run, from their pasts and their choices, the consequences of which are increasingly embedded in social media.
As “We Will All Be Received” opens, the central, female protagonist, whose story ignites and propels the others, is a runaway and fugitive. She remains unnamed through much of the book, but decides to call herself Dawn; it’s from a happenstancely spotted poster of Tony Orlando and Dawn, but equally apt as the moniker marker beginning of a new life.
In 1977, as her boyfriend, Slake, sleeps, or more accurately sleeps it off, she sneaks out of their Northern Ontario motel room. She has a blood-stained jacket and several rolls of bills, total amount unknown, the culmination of Slake’s increasing ambitious and vicious drug-dealing. Her destination is simply getting away and, walking and hitchhiking, she heads blindly east.
Eventually she’s riding with Jerry, a truck driver who’s headed home to Corner Brook. Jerry is fixated on two things: Elvis, and space age developments like satellites. It’s his conversation that brings the entrance of the title: “One day we’ll all get to go up there, and we will all be received.”
Dawn has never been to Newfoundland, doesn’t even appreciate it’s an island, but has nowhere better to go, so she travels along, and ends up not just in Jerry’s town but invited into his family, working at his cousin Margaret’s Blue Iris Inn. Time passes, with the constant that the more Dawn insists she doesn’t need saving, the more determined Jerry is to be her guardian angel.
In parallel, Ethan, in 2012, has a background he can’t erase. As a child he was kidnapped, abused, and managed to escape his tormentor, an ordeal which made international headlines. But he’s set on not letting this trauma shape his life. (He’s fine — how often does he have to say that?) Newly released from a relationship, and with an in-demand technical job that opens geographic opportunities, he lights out for a new horizon.
Next, Spencer, an ex-convict turned executive with Redempt-Ed, sits in the organization’s mainland office, grappling with his newest assignment: arranging the annual conference, this time in Newfoundland. But his mind is mostly on his little son, Denny, and how “before long, Denny would be old enough to find out, and Spencer and Janet had never decided how they’d do it, if they’d tell him or wait until he found out somehow, maybe on the internet by accident, or from one of those fucking dead-girls-of-days-gone-by stories that popped up every now and then on a slow news day.”
And then there’s Cheryl, a former documentary producer who also has parenting concerns; her daughter Jenna is being targeted online (and refuses to discuss it), a situation Cheryl, too, is wrestling with, as search results for her name immediately offer “Award-winning filmmaker excuses use of racial slur.”
Dawn’s chronicle intercuts and paces the others as she resides — even flourishes — on Newfoundland’s west coast, drawn into friendships and affairs while still, as much as possible, keeping her own counsel and distance. To that, Jerry is always close, and as she moves through her 50s, is actively advising against her latest plan, which is to move to an isolated outport where she will do little more than look out her kitchen window and create her pressed flower framings. But it’s when he takes her on a tour of the Northern Peninsula, just to drive home how bleak it is, that she finds what she didn’t realize she was searching for: a hotel that’s for sale.
She never did use Slake’s purloined money for anything…
And it’s her decision to purchase the property that synchronizes the narratives, drawing all the characters together one early Easter weekend in a vicious March snowstorm. As they somewhat self-consciously note, it’s a bit too much like the board game Clue. And as Cheryl remarks, above, they don’t know each other. Not at all.
Vryenhoek is also a poet, and that discipline shows in the descriptive precision of her writing (“a murmle of voices”; “He’s never understood it, the body’s reaction to cold, how fast it moves to jettison appendages”). The rest is pure plot adrenalin.
As the stakes start piling up like the snow outside …
Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.