Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro
Isolation is Mary Anna Evans’s writing at its finest—which is saying a lot for this award-winning author. Evans has long been adept at blending history, archaeology, mystery and domestic drama into riveting tales, smoothly written and well laced with the homegrown humidity and lushness of her native South. She’s conjured this magic combination before—eight times to be exact—in the Faye Longchamp archaeological mystery series. So it will come as no surprise to her fans that she’s at the top of her craft in her ninth book in the series, Isolation, once more weaving history, crime, and family drama into a complex, compelling and satisfying story.
Yet Isolation digs more deeply into the humanity and emotions of her main characters, archaeologist Faye Longchamp-Mantooth and her husband, Native-American flintknapper and hunter Joe Wolf Mantooth, than it digs archaeologically. In some ways the emotional lives of Faye and Joe take center stage in the story, but far from diluting the essential mysteries, this makes Isolation Evans’s richest novel yet.
Isolation is set on Joyeuse Island, in north Florida, not too far from Tallahassee, in the Big Bend area, also known as the Forgotten Coast. Florida it may be, but this is not a Carl Hiaasen-type zany Florida novel; this is North Florida, a setting more attuned to the Southern Gothic than manic-Miami capers. And there is a welcome hint of the Southern Gothic in Isolation, just as there is a hint of a ghost story in the voice of the long-dead slave woman, Cally Stanton, who lived her entire life on Joyeuse and was Faye’s great-great-grandmother. Rather than using a spectral being or the oft-used device of an ancient diary, Evans gives Cally a voice captured in the oral history project of the WPA Slave Narratives. Though Evans uses the WPA Slave Narratives in a fictional capacity, these are very real and available online here.
Faye Longchamp-Mantooth once more is the protagonist in the story, but it’s Cally who speaks first in the book. In her words preserved in the WPA project, Cally sagely observes that secrets hold power. She concludes, mysteriously enough, that “[s]ometimes there is only one gift a body can give another person. Sometimes that gift is silence.”
Faye enters the story soon after Cally speaks those eloquent and curious words. But this is a Faye who is heart-broken, gaunt, and trying to work her way through the near paralyzing grief and guilt of a miscarriage. Evans poignantly describes this misfortune as a “late miscarriage that carr[ied] away a child who ha[d] been bumping around in her mother’s womb long enough for mother and daughter to get to know one another.”
Trying to escape from the anguish, Faye—an archaeologist and a PhD—is compulsively digging, but randomly, it would seem. Faye doesn’t know where to dig because she doesn’t know what she is trying to find. Yet, as she wryly observes, “[h]er hand was remarkably steady for the hand of a woman who’d been hearing voices for a month.”
Faye’s husband, Joe, a man who had “grown up in ramshackle houses that were held together by duct tape and landlords’ promises,” doesn’t know how to reach or help his beloved wife. He too grieves, but as Faye absents herself from their house early each morning to randomly dig, Joe stays behind to care for Michael, Joe and Faye’s two-year-old son. Their adopted daughter, Amande—introduced to readers in Plunders (Poisoned Pen Press 2012)—is away from home “doing an immersion course in Spanish at a camp situated so high in the Appalachians that she’d asked for heavy sweaters long before Halloween.”
Joe first appeared in Artifacts (Poisoned Pen Press 2003), the first book in the series, as a vagrant camped on Faye’s beloved island, owning nothing more than his clothes, some camping gear, and a ratty johnboat. He’s a gifted flintknapper, a hunter, a man’s man, and as Evans herself has blogged, “an absolutely inappropriate romantic partner for Faye.” Nonetheless, Faye and Joe’s relationship has grown naturally from book to book, from attraction to love, marriage, the birth of Michael, and now to this grief that threatens their relationship.
And that grief is rapidly complicated when Joe’s estranged father, Sly, a Native American who has served time in prison and seems to have woefully failed Joe’s mother and Joe himself, comes early for Thanksgiving dinner and seems to have no intention of leaving. Sly wants to make amends. He and Joe struggle to find common ground, little knowing how dangerous that common ground will be. Sly is a talker and a flirt, traits that irritate the steady and quiet Joe. Yet, at a critical moment in the story, Joe learns he can trust his father. When Joe and Faye must race to stop the killer who has them all in the sights of a high-powered rifle, Joe leaves Michael in the care of Sly, knowing his father will protect the child from danger.
While the domestic story plays big in Isolation, this is not to imply there are no mysteries. There are. A complex layering of murder, environmental transgressions, genealogy, and history, all wound up in a ghostly kind of mist, will keep any mystery reader avidly turning the pages. And Cally’s secret, alluded to in her own words in the slave narratives at the opening of the book—a secret protected for 150 years—will prove a catalyst in both creating and then solving a key mystery.
The action-filled plot focuses initially on the murder of Liz, the woman who ran the grill at the marina Faye and Joe frequent. Sly, who had been flirting daily with Liz, is a suspect mostly because he’s a newcomer and an ex-con. Soon after Liz’s murder, someone tries to break into the home of another lady friend of Faye and Joe—a lady Sly had just that afternoon taken fishing on a pleasant first date. Once more law enforcement consider Sly as a possible suspect. Even Joe has a moment when he questions Sly’s guilt. But when an attempted rape occurs close by on the mainland and someone appears to be stalking Faye on the island, Joe and Sly combine their hunting and survival skills. Protecting Faye is paramount to both men.
Complicating matters further, Faye unwittingly punctures an ancient metal drum while randomly digging and releases a toxic chemical. A team of county environmental agents gather on Joyeuse Island trying to isolate and identify the toxic waste Faye unintentionally discovered.
Oscar, a man on a quest to find a missing ancestor who was a Union officer in the War Between the States, seems hell-bent on establishing that Cally Stanton was involved in a crime which happened some 150 years before. He has enlisted the aid of Delia, a beautiful blond genealogist (someone Faye initially considers little more than a glorified tour guide). Faye struggles to defend her great-great-grandmother Cally against Oscar’s allegations and studies Cally’s oral history again for traces of the old secret that links Cally and Oscar’s ancestor. While Oscar and the genealogist dig around in public records and search over Joyeuse Island, a marina mechanic illegally dumps toxic waste into the Gulf and a marina businesswoman further implicates Sly in Liz’s murder by giving a false statement to the law.
Faye, whose native intelligence is often the tool that solves the mysteries, is slow in getting involved due to her own grief. Liz was her friend, but instead of jumping headfirst into solving the crime, Faye is still struggling with simple things—like eating when she has no appetite and trying to sleep when she cannot. But when the danger strikes closer to home—and Sly continues to be a suspect—Faye rallies and soon enough gathers together the clues and insights that link the past secret with the current violence. Faye’s discovery will lead her and Joe on a frightening night run through Joyeuse’s wooded landscape and into a desperate fight to save all they love in their lives.
Evans’s work has always been intelligent and literary, but she seems bolder in Isolation, writing in a style more conspicuously literary. One of the opening chapters is written from the point of view of fish! Yet, it isn’t the fish that give this book its literary quality; rather, it’s the rich language and evocative tone. Evans writes so perceptively and with such careful diction that the reader can feel Faye’s distress. Take, for example, this passage: “[Faye’s] frenetic busyness was an antidote for the times the voice tiptoed into ground that shook beneath her feet. It crept into dangerous territory and then beckoned her to follow. It asked her to believe that she was to blame for the baby’s death, for the mute suffering in Joe’s eyes, for every tear Michael shed.”
Perhaps these lines owe to the M.F.A. Mary Anna Evans just earned from Rutgers University. Or they could just signal the natural evolution of her style. Regardless, they work, and so do others like them—thus making Isolation stand out in a very fine series.
In addition to her MFA, Evans has advanced degrees in physics and engineering. She has won the Mississippi Library Association’s Mississippi Author Award, as well as the Benjamin Franklin Award, the Florida Historical Society’s Patrick D. Smith Florida Literature Award, and three Florida Book Awards bronze medals. She is currently teaching in a tenure-track position as an assistant professor of professional writing at the University of Oklahoma. She promises her fans to keep writing the Faye Longchamp series. Her website is available here.