‘Never Turn Back’ a page-turner fueled by past traumas

Atlanta author Christopher Swann's new book is "Never Turn Back." Courtesy of Crooked Lane Books

Book review

Atlanta novelist Christopher Swann’s surefooted debut, “Shadow of the Lions,” won enthusiastic readers who were eager for more of his literary suspense. He delivers with “Never Turn Back,” a compelling story about family, vengeance and the reverberations of the past.

A bookish child, Ethan Faulkner has a father who is a volatile war veteran and a mother who, like the age-old stereotype of Irish matriarchs, is gentle, lovely and weary of managing an unpredictable home. His little sister, Susannah, is the attention-seeking firecracker of the group. Despite its chronic angers, it is a loving family.

One night, a young woman rings their doorbell, desperate to hide from two sinister men who are pursuing her. When one of the men barges in after her, a struggle leaves both of Ethan’s parents shot to death. The killers evade capture.

The novel veers back and forth from this time period to the present, when Ethan is a teacher at a private school in Atlanta. He finds satisfaction in his work, and his students and dog, Wilson, love him — count on getting to know the dog. All seems well until Susannah shows up, needing a place to stay. Ethan grudgingly recalls his promise to his dying father, to take care of his sister — no easy feat. She has always been headstrong, exasperating and haunted by her parents' murders.

The only sign of any interior darkness in Ethan is his emotional unavailability in romantic relationships. “I’ve built different walls, too, thicker ones, around myself. I’m no wilting flower, and I’m not an insensitive jackass, either. But like I said before, I’ve found it easier to casually hook up with women than to create and maintain a relationship.” One such hook-up proves fateful when his one-night stand joins his faculty as a fellow teacher. Marisa proves tempestuous enough to be irresistible. Soon they are trysting on the school grounds — always an ill-advised move, but, in this case, with even worse consequences than you imagine.

When a corpse turns up, with puzzling ties to his parents' long-ago murder, Ethan begins to sleuth, and “Never Turn Back” becomes a compulsive page-turner with more hairpin curves than a mountain road. To reveal much about plot twists would be giving away spoilers.

The novel teems with an eclectic mix of characters from several social, racial and sexual demographics, and even the peripheral ones are fully realized due to Swann’s subtle descriptive powers that transcend the limits of genre writing. For example, there is the harrumphing Father Coleman Carter at the Archer School, where Ethan teaches: “The people who are frightened of him — and there are more than a few — don’t realize how much of Coleman’s behavior is an act. The man uses bluster as a way to engage with the world because at heart, he doubts both the world and himself and longs for assurance that all will be well, which perhaps explains why he is a priest. I have learned that such assurance is hard to find and harder to keep.”

Both of Swann’s novels star a collegial, dedicated teacher at an elite prep school. It is territory the author knows well. He attended a Virginia boarding school and has taught at private schools for 25 years, currently serving as chair of the English department at Holy Innocents' Episcopal School in Atlanta. That such rarefied, cloistered environments lend themselves to a certain kind of secret-keeping has earned him comparisons to Donna Tartt. Throw in some postmillennial, digital-age Kafka, too. In Swann’s fiction, these well-intentioned guys always run into some rotten luck with the bureaucracy.

The classroom scenes are enjoyable enough to make a reader nostalgic for some didactic Shakespeare, with their realistic student-teacher interactions, literary quotations and gilded Latin phrases. (There are also enough F-bombs for the sake of naturalism.) “Never Turn Back” ventures beyond school grounds, though. The crime trail leads to a mental institution, a jail, a gritty tavern and a body shop where shady deals go down, and even, oddly enough, to a north Georgia monastery.

Swann takes an interesting tack with LGBTQ issues. The cisgender protagonist is somewhat naïve — some might say clueless — about another character’s orientation, but once the truth is revealed, he responds with sensitivity and understanding. A gay love-match proves ultimately the healthiest and most loving relationship in the book.

Readers will root for Ethan, but the character who will distract them the most is brash, resourceful, uncompromising Susannah. She is that rare sort of woman who, with the flick of her wrist, can overpower a handsy man at a pool table by “she stomp(ing) on his foot with her Doc Martens before letting go.” She grows increasingly sympathetic as more of her biography is revealed; the double homicide was not her only tragedy. (Look for Susannah in a forthcoming book from Swann.)

“Shadow of the Lions” is a meditation on secrets; “Never Turn Back” is a study of trauma. Everyone is damaged somehow, and most of them, with the exception of Ethan, are adept at adding to the sum total of pain in the world. Near the end, it seems the cycle will not stop. Erotic obsession, cyber-bullying and suicide attempts come into play. Even the poor dog suffers. Swann says he studied mental illness, in particular psychopathy, to write with depth on the subject.

It is to his credit that the end of the book, which neatly ties up a welter of subplots, manages to lend context to some of the aberrant behavior. It does not justify it or make excuses, just puts it into a sort of world-weary perspective.

FICTION

‘Never Turn Back’

by Christopher Swann

Crooked Lane Books

288 pages, $26.99

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