“Jane Was Here,” by Sarah Kernochan, Grey Swan Press, June 2011, 330 pp., $24.95.
It’s not too late to get started on a summer read if you pick up the supernatural thriller “Jane Was Here” right away. It’s one of those books you won’t want to put down, and if you start reading it now, chances are you’ll be wrapped up in the disquieting climax before Labor Day rolls around.
The title heroine, a strange young woman who speaks in oddly stilted English, appears mysteriously in a small New England town and sets in motion a series of dramatic events. “Jane Was Here” is not your typical story where a quirky visitor turns around the lives of a few unhappy townspeople. Quite the reverse. Jane’s arrival seems to amplify the misery of some already down-and-out characters and dredges up some dark secrets from the town’s past.
Reincarnation is the central theme. We know that Jane has had a past life but what we don’t know is why she has come back and what is the mystery that is compelling her to search so persistently for the details of her former life — and death.
The book is full of richly complex characters. When we first meet the denizens of fictional Graynier, they appear to lead the humdrum, predictable lives of small town denizens, but slowly a few are revealed to be almost as enigmatic as Jane herself. Although the book revolves around Jane’s search for her identity, we also find a number of equally lost souls — characters who seem thoroughly displaced, not as completely but no less dramatically. We encounter an embittered alcoholic, whose menial job belies his blue-blood roots and education, a seemingly emotionless overweight teenager who harbors dark fantasies, and a young man headed to MIT who is secretly using his superior intellect to dabble in illegal activity.
Even the children in the novel are shadowy and complicated. Two alienated youngsters prove, as an oddly joined team, to be the catalyst for the dramatic climax which, despite considerable eerie foreshadowing, proves to be more catastrophic and disturbing than one might have guessed.
The love interest in the book is an unlikely hero, a disenchanted young man still reeling from a bad relationship and grudgingly trying to forge some sort of bond with a son he has never had the chance to know.
The book is really two stories that are revealed simultaneously bit-by-bit. Jane’s former life slowly unravels during her contemporary counterpart’s search for identity, while the residents of rundown Graynier reveal their own secrets, and are eventually seen as embodying traits of some of the turn-of-the-century story’s major players. Both stories are equally compelling and seamlessly intertwined. While not exactly a hide-under-the-covers scary story, “Jane Was Here” has a high creep factor and an eerie feel throughout.
This is the second novel by Ms. Kernochan, who is a successful TV and film producer and writer, as well as a singer/songwriter. Among other things she co-wrote the thriller “What Lies Beneath” (2000) starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford, shared a screenwriting credit for “9½; Weeks” (1986) and has won two Academy Awards for the documentaries “Marjoe” (1972) and “Thoth” (2002).
Although “What Lies Beneath” may be Ms. Kernochan’s best-known film, it was her only foray, prior to “Jane Was Here,” into the supernatural, and she is not primarily a writer of thrillers. She has penned screenplays for two period pieces, “Impromptu” and “Sommersby” and, with “Jane Was Here,” she combines her skill for telling a dark story with her talent for capturing the tone and language of earlier times.
Ms. Kernochan is a part-time Vineyard resident whose family has owned a home in Edgartown for three generations. She spends summers here with her husband — Tony and Pulitzer prize-winning playwright and director, James Lapine. The couple’s daughter, Phoebe, recently co-wrote a cookbook called “In the Small Kitchen: 100 Recipes From Our Year of Cooking in the Real World,” which was reviewed in July 28 issue of The Times.
Gwyn McAllister, of Oak Bluffs, is a frequent contributor to The Times.