Reviewer: Jill Haugh
Chronicle Books 2013
Oh—to lavish away a rainy summer’s day savoring a delicious confection of a novel starring Emily Dickinson as the main character—and she’s out to solve a murder mystery!
Yes, you read correctly. And while Nobody’s Secret by Michaela MacColl is as frothy and decadent as a meringue tart, I assure you it is made from only the freshest, most solidly scrumptious organic ingredients available, and deftly shaped by an artful hand.
Here’s the Goodreads blurb:
One day, fifteen-year-old Emily Dickinson meets a mysterious, handsome young man. Surprisingly, he doesn’t seem to know who she or her family is. And even more surprisingly, he playfully refuses to divulge his name. Emily enjoys her secret flirtation with Mr. “Nobody” until he turns up dead in her family’s pond. She’s stricken with guilt. Only Emily can discover who this enigmatic stranger was before he’s condemned to be buried in an anonymous grave. Her investigation takes her deep into town secrets, blossoming romance, and deadly danger. Exquisitely written and meticulously researched, this novel celebrates Emily Dickinson’s intellect and spunk in a page-turner of a book that will excite fans of mystery, romance, and poetry alike.
What tickled me about this slim volume was MacColl’s judicious use of Dickinson’s poetry throughout. The name, “Mr. Nobody” is, of course, straight from Dickinson’s “I am nobody—who are you?” poem and (fictionally) grounds this fanciful poem and its influence firmly within the novel’s plot. Each chapter starts with a snippet from one of E.D’s lovely poems, and surprise! The poems themselves seem to spring forth from the story at hand, and shed light on our heroine’s own unique perspective as she strides purposefully through the novel’s myriad of clues, applying her fabulous brain’s inner workings to try and crack this case like the best of sleuths.
It must have been a difficult task for a writer to take such a well-known historical family such as the Amherst Dickinsons and plop them into a novel. I can only imagine the legions of ghosts and scholars breathing down poor Ms. MacColl’s neck—though she has done a wonderful job animating historical facts and all characters are given fair value: Emily’s hypochondriac mother is smothercating—but for all the right reasons, so we forgive her much like Emily does; Her absentee father’s shadow is stern and mildly threatening, but we hope along with Emily that he will appreciate the steps his daughter has gone through to protect his business’s good name; and Vinnie, Emily’s pretty younger sister, transforms before our eyes into the ally history proved her to be. (She is the one who unearthed the legendary trunk, jam-packed full of poetry after Emily died.)
While the book jacket touts “intrigue and romance” as its tag-line, rest assured the romance in this book involves no lusty bodice-ripping, rather it is a genteel side-step around the earthy mud-puddle of passion, which I felt was quite befitting the memory of this introverted, reclusive woman. Never once does MacColl compromise Dickinson’s position as thoughtful, ailing spinster-poet. Instead readers catch a glimpse of a passionate, driven girl, whose particular poetic vision gives life to an innocent encounter with a doting young gentleman, and like many young girls are wont to do, breathes some daydream into it.
Now I just know there are some scholarly zealots growing red around the mutton-chops and bridling about all this man-handling of Dickinsonian provenance, but I say unto you, “Chillax Dudes!” Tis artistic license at its best and you need to just grab a cold glass of lemonade, find a hammock and enjoy this lovely, lively frigate of a book. (I couldn’t resist.)
And good luck trying to figure out who-dunnit. It had me stumped almost till the end.
Despite the mortal-coil premise and the infamy of murder, Nobody’s Secret somehow plays out in a lighthearted manner, though it is a trifle sad in the way “what might have been” can be, for this story is set against a landscape of bittersweet: We know what happens to Emily in the dreaded end, though MacColl never lets this knowledge weigh down the story. Rather we delight in watching a young, willful, imaginative Emily have one great bang-up adventure before settling into her shroud of adulthood.
Dare I say it? I think Emily would have liked it–and read it twice.
This was a great review, Jill. Definitely this book goes on my “must read” list. I like Dickinson’s poetry, and I love mysteries set in historical times, especially when they feature literary characters. It sound like McColl has done a fine job with this mystery.