In a novel full of unreliable narrators, whom do you trust? Readers have to work for the truth in Brandi Lynn Ryder’s In Malice Quite Close, to find a way through this maze of lies and omissions, secret passages, and dirty obsessions. The novel is never dull. And at least one narrator is reliable, though she doesn’t have all the facts or the sophistication to guess what she knows, since she’s eleven years old. The book is part literary, part mystery and built around art. It is telling that Ryder chose the Impressionist to concentrate on, as so much depends on what impressions one gets from the characters and their motivations, depending on who they tell what information and what those characters do with it.
Tristan Mourault, a Frenchman living in America, tells us on the first page we should believe everything he says at our own risk. What he tells is the truth, he says, but his own truth. Nevertheless, his narrative is fairly transparent. Even when we don’t believe him, we see what he shies from.
“I have come to see I’m incapable of drawing clear moral distinctions. . . . There is no line I cannot smudge with my thumb” (1). This much becomes apparent early on, as in his justification for abducting a girl barely fifteen: “I have always been undone by beautiful things, and it might be said that beauty itself was my quarry. The intangible made flesh, . . .. Beauty and the beholder are complicit in their crimes, you see. And I have been slave to my nature as much as master.”
The beauty Tristan beholds and abducts is Gisèle, as he calls her. She was born Karen Miller and lives in San Francisco with her parents and younger sister Mandy. Karen goes to school, dresses in bargain-store jeans and sneakers, and is sexually abused by her father. She’s the most beautiful thing Tristan Mourault has ever seen. But Americans are so difficult about fifteen-year-old girls seduced by thirty-four-year-old men.
One day Karen meets this sophisticated older man. Tristan pays attention to her, reads the stories she writes, talks to her about art and beauty and all the things she doesn’t have in her life. Although Karen is devoted to Mandy, her home life is a nightmare, and Tristan offers a means to escape, to live in New York. Gisèle will be surrounded by beauty—art galleries, clothes, makeup, perfume. She and Tristan will be a family and live happily ever after. It’s a game to the girl until Tristan makes it real. He’s obsessed, and his desperation grows as Gisèle and her needs mature. At which point other people enter their lives.
I was jolted by the shift of focus from Tristan and Gisèle alone in New York to Tristan and Gisèle fifteen years later in Devon, Washington. They’re no longer alone. Robin Dresden, Marc Kreicek, and Luke and Nicola Farrell have joined the family. Luke is Gisèle’s husband, Nicola her daughter. Although Nicola calls Luke her father, paternity quickly comes into question.
The ruin of innocence is never easy to watch. Yet, once the scene shifted to Devon, I felt distanced from Gisèle. It wasn’t the slight degree of her complicity. Her father and Tristan left her little choice about her course, and youth did the rest. Years later, with a daughter and surrounded by men in a house full of secrets and lies, she ought to have been a more sympathetic character. The other characters, and the great number of them, stole Gisele’s light. Her original brilliance paled as I followed the plot’s twists and mysteries. Tristan also paled. They weren’t carbon copies of Humbert Humbert and Lolita. Their story had a life and energy of its own.
I resented the scattering of focus, even though I remained interested in the story. Nicola’s innocence lives on borrowed time, and the danger to more than her innocence gnawed at me. Mandy Miller comes into the picture, too, through coincidence and manipulation. It was interesting to uncover who manipulated whom and how. The original story and the involved mystery fitted together imperfectly, though, in some places improbably. After a brilliant beginning I expected more of the novel.