I Came Here to Disappear
With The Gloaming, Melanie Finn crafts a potent vanishing act
Melanie Finn’s second novel, The Gloaming, opens with the end of a marriage. The scene is a mutual friend’s home outside of Geneva, and the catalyst for the collapse is a young woman, Elise, who the novel’s narrator, Pilgrim, sees approach her husband while the three are on a group walk. Pilgrim continues on ahead of the pair, and she looks back occasionally to watch them chat. Her husband, Tom, leans toward Elise; Elise covers her face to laugh. They flirt in a “breathless air,” caught in a moment where everything seems “amplified, impulsive,” and yet Pilgrim never interrupts their encounter. It’s almost as if she knows a chapter of her life is coming to a close.
On paper, the exchange lasts just two paragraphs, yet the economy of language employed by Finn in this well-crafted opening is brilliant, relaying everything one needs to know about the gut-punch reality of seeing a life drift away via simple gestures and observation. Never does the author slip into tired melodrama, and this decision helps sets the tone for the entirety of The Gloaming, which, despite a somewhat deflated conclusion, offers an engaging take on redemption narratives.
Time passes. Tom and Elise, now a couple, have recently had a baby. Meanwhile, Pilgrim lives alone in Arnau, Switzerland, in the apartment she once shared with her husband. Her life is relatively solitary, and while she’s a year removed from that fateful walk outside Geneva, Pilgrim still tries to understand how to approach her new reality — as an American, for example, she isn’t sure why she remains in a small European town.
Then one day Pilgrim swerves to avoid a dog in the road and crashes her car into a bus shelter, killing three children. Though she is ultimately found innocent of any wrongdoing, her community cannot ignore the tragedy. They see her as nothing but a killer, and Pilgrim suspects the father of one of the lost children is regularly breaking into her home. Thus, saddled with guilt, disconnected from her surroundings, Pilgrim uproots herself — her name lends itself to such action — and relocates to Tanzania, first settling in the small community of Magulu before taking up residence in Tanga.
At this point in her novel, Finn could transform her protagonist’s story into something akin to an Eat, Pray, Love knockoff. Thankfully, she shies away from such epiphany quests, instead setting Pilgrim off on a far more ambiguous journey. The character has no particular ambition other than to hide from her old life, and so she sets up house and finds herself integrating into the day-to-day lives of the locals: police officer, Kessy; quirky doctor, Dorothea; and later, in Tanga, Gloria, who has come to Africa from the United States to build an orphanage for children living with AIDS; and Harry, a drunkard pilot. While Finn injects elements of danger into these locations in the form of Martin Martins, a mercenary who arrives one day out of the blue, as well as in the discovery of a mystery box containing shriveled body parts, her focus primarily falls on the limbo nature of Pilgrim’s time in Tanzania, where everything — safety, life, happiness — is tentative. Here, we see the novel’s title truly blossom, for just as dusk separates day and night, Pilgrim’s life slowly teeters between security and chaos in this unfamiliar land. Early in her residency, after she is mobbed and attacked by a group of local children, Pilgrim washes her face back at her room, and her mind — remembering her car accident — wanders between Switzerland and Tanzania:
Their gender and their number are a coincidence. A girl and two boys. From huts in the bush. But there, again, is the odd loosening, the wavering, and I force myself to look in the mirror. Here I am. Here. My hands are on the sink. The solidity of things. Touch my face with my fingertips. Feel my skull under the skin.
This tangent, and the others that introduce Pilgrim’s state of uncertainty to the reader, are potent, and despite the somewhat rambling nature of her travels, Pilgrim’s narrative grabs the reader. So it’s a shock when, a little over halfway though her novel, Finn abandons her protagonist’s first-person, diary-like chapters to spend the rest of her book looking at the world through the eyes of those Pilgrim meets. We travel back in time and location to spend a long section with Strebel, the police inspector assigned to investigate Pilgrim’s accident. Finn playfully uses these pages to retell scenes in which the pair interacts, rounding each out with the injection of Strebel’s thoughts and his attraction toward the striking divorcée, but she also employs Strebel to show what happens in Switzerland after Pilgrim flees. Soon enough, the policeman is on a plane to Africa himself, convinced that Ernst Koppler, the bereaved father of one of Pilgrim’s victims, has decided to hunt down and kill her.
From here, the author fills in the gaps of Koppler’s murderous quest, and, in turn, Pilgrim’s ultimate fate, by devoting other sections to Dorothea, Gloria, Harry, and Martin Martins. The move is bold, and it jars the reader from any sense of comfort, yet these sections, perhaps due to Finn’s decision to switch to primarily a third-person subjective perspective, only sometimes find the same precision in voice evident in the novel’s first half. As the final pages wind down, and Pilgrim’s story comes full circle (with a bit of convenient character shuffling), it’s hard to tell if this structural decision truly pays off. Yet there’s enough allurement throughout The Gloaming to stave off boredom. This is a pure example of a literary page-turner, one that begins with an ending and ends with a new beginning, written by a very smart author.