There is something about an excellent psychological thriller in the way it awakens the mind out of a state of slumber. A reader is forced to consider plot twists of a story plus become enveloped in the moral dilemmas of the characters. Then the reader of the story seems to become obsessed with finishing the story at all costs. Nicole Lundrigan is an expert in writing great fiction, and her book The Substitute is a perfect example of how great she is in her craft.
Though I am not afflicted by it, I wonder about guilt. When I was a child, I would crouch on the cement floor of our basement, building elaborate contraptions, and thinking, Which piece of this system is culpable? Sometimes a slender knife would fly forward and mar the wallpaper, or a needle would lift and destroy a balloon. Once I even built a system where the sharpened legs of a scissors closed on photographs of my father. Straight through his skinny neck. As the grainy image of his face drifted left, and his suited body drifted right, I questioned what part of my machine was responsible for that destruction. The systems were nomore than a mess of inanimate objects: croquet balls, yardsticks, greasy springs, plastic bowls, and bent spoons. If each one followed the simple rules of cause and effect, could the steel bearing be accused if it never came in contact with the flying paint? Would the rubber band be guilty when it had no choice but to stretch and snap? I imagined the liability lay somewhere within them all. Guilt trapped inside the weighty potential of the machine. Never in the tip of my finger. Never in the bend of my wrist. Never cupped in the palm of my hand.
I have adored Lundrigan previous writings (Link to my review of The Widow Tree) and this book is just as thought-provoking as her previous works. Here we are vaulted into the life of poor Warren Botts. He is in the process of attempting to teach middle-school science and having a rough time of it. In the thick of the his attempts is thirteen-year old Amanda – soft-spoken and introverted – who is in desperate search of acceptance and guidance. When Amanda is found dead, hanging in Botts’ backyard. Botts becomes somewhat confused and unglued and is unable to give the police proper explanations for what had happened. Suspicions mount from both the police and his neighbours and Botts becomes even more frayed. Meanwhile another voice appears in the story – unknown whom it is to us – giving us chilling details and showing strong emotional detachment to the events swirling around the story.
My father looked peaceful in the casket at the funeral home. They had his hair combed straight down to disguise the wreck of his forehead. Thick beige makeup was substantial, and while there was too much pink in the cheek, my swollen mother had insisted on extra. “He doesn’t look well,” she tearfully told the director. “His colour is off.” No joke.
His hands were folded together across his chest. Nails trimmed, four fingers resting upon four fingers. When I stood near the box, I reached out, touched his cool skin. I could almost detect a hint of warmth still lingering there, and I entertained the thought he would wake up once weighted under the soil.
Glancing behind me, I noticed funeral-goers were granting me some time alone. A tender moment to say goodbye. I ran my hand over his, then gripped his middle finger, his “swearing finger,” as I had heard kids say at school, and I squeezed it. “Oh Dad,” I whispered, “Where are you now?” With another quick look over my shoulder, I cranked his finger backward, pressed down, felt dead ligaments tearing a distinct and pleasant pop.
When I stepped aside, his finger remained displaced. My mother waddled up for a subsequent pass, and noticed. Cheeks flushing the same natural colour as her husband’s, she tried to reposition it, tried to slip it underneath his index finger. Tried to bend it the other way. No luck. It rose up again. Telling the world what he thought of them. I noticed the other mourners smirking, nodding. I hope the bastard stayed like that forever.
There are some deep thoughts that run through this book. I found myself reading and rereading some of the passages over and over again just to simply regain some of the emotions that Lundrigan has so brilliantly conceived with her wording. A carefully patient reader with this book can’t help but gain empathy for certain characters, even if their actions are questionable or even horrid.
“Yes. Overwhelmed.” For a moment, he closed his eyes, imagined the cube-shaped room flipping outward, and instead of being on the inside of the die, he was standing on one of the faces. All he had to do was shuffle backward, and he would tip over an edge. Detective Reed would stay on the six, and he would slip ninety degrees onto the four. No longer facing each other, a right angle between them.
“Botts?” She continued to crunch, pulverizing the sugar in her mouth. “You got my attention.”
The Substitute by Nicole Lundrigan was certainly one of the boldest reads I came across in 2017 and will be, no doubt, one of my favourites of this year. It is a thriller that kept me thinking and reviewing. And certainly a great piece of literature.