Kraven Island, in the Outer Carolina Banks, is an old town where the families—and their histories together—run back to the Civil War and then some. David Ribault and his lover Merrill Poulnot are a pair of these old-family people, and their lives are running along a fine if occasionally rocky course, until the arrival of Rawson Steele. Steele is a Northerner with designs on the island, and possibly Merrill as well. But in the end, none of that matters—because one morning around five A.M., the entire population of Kraven disappears without a trace.
Combining elements of various tales—lost colonies, the old-family politics of the coastal Carolinas, a supernatural intervention on a small town, et cetera—Where offers an exploration of what it means to be lost (and found). Following David as he searches for answers and Merrill (as well as her little brother Ned) in the desert compound where the islanders disappeared to, the novel tackles both family drama and supernatural influence.
The narrative is split between several points of view, the majority of which are actually settled in the desert locale/compound that the islanders are disappeared to. David’s point of view is the primary contact we have, narratively, with the outside world; his chapters consist of reconnaissance, mostly, sneaking on and off the island to try and make sense of the mystery. However, the other story—the islanders’ story—has an interesting almost-mythic angle: it appears to be, in the end, concerned with Merrill defeating and displacing her father, an abusive patriarch who believes himself to be a sort of new-day Moses and leader of the island.
The compound, with its mix of the technological and supernatural, remains a mystery to the end; in fact, the narrative cuts out just as Merrill attacks her father in front of the crowd, ending his cycle of violence with violence of her own. The next chapter, the concluding one, is of David sitting on the beach accepting the nature of unanswerable questions and irredeemable losses—until Merrill and the surviving islanders come walking up out of the sea. There are no answers as to the mechanics of their return; it simply happens.
Where is one of those books that has a central idea more than a central narrative—in this case, exploring the idea that people who are missing or disappeared, from lost colonies to soldiers missing in action, are “still out there” until proven otherwise. Reed confirms this in the closing notes, following a short story that shares a character and a conceit with the novel; the short story, too, is about the strange limbo of knowing someone who has been lost might return, someday—being unable to lay it to rest.
This idea is realized in the conclusion of the novel, when the disappeared individuals from Kraven Island come walking back up out of the sea: it has always been possible for them to return, because disappearing is not the same as dying. That moment is one of the stronger parts of the novel. David’s helpless epiphany before God and nature is disrupted by the return of the woman he had just accepted as lost. The turnaround is the pivot for the emotional arc of the story, leading the reader around to the conceit of the missing never being truly gone.
The unfortunate thing about Where, though, is that it distinctly should have been a novella. As it is, the pacing and dramatic tension are overstretched; whole chapters begin to seem relatively unnecessary or pasted on, drawing out the timeline and putting off the central epiphany that the story is pushing toward. Since it is, really, a story about the epiphany, the meandering approach begins to make it seem unbalanced.
Furthermore, a great deal of the time spent on the characters who are experiencing the “relocation” in the desert space doesn’t have as much of a payoff as one might hope—or, if it does, it seems like a detached second narrative dealing with entirely different issues from the central conceit. Which, paradoxically, it would need far more length and investment to make a success of. It’s too long for one ideological arc, and too short for the ideological arc to be paired well with a social-commentary-slash-plot arc—though that arc has things about it that I found compelling. I can see where the two halves of the novel attempt to come together, but don’t necessarily feel that it’s a successful merger.
So, while this had hints of a book I would have liked more—I did find the sense of family history and social history on the island to be powerful and just the right amount of understated; I also liked the relationships sketched between Davy, Earl, and Boogie, for example—in the end it didn’t quite come together. The concluding scene is sharp, and the central idea is in and of itself interesting, but the execution leaves a bit to be desired.
Where is available May 12th from Tor Books.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.