An idyllic retreat is everything but relaxing
AH, summertime. Spending a month with friends in a secluded cottage in the Northwest Canadian woods -- in this case in East Sooke, on the coast of Vancouver Island -- seems appealing to two overworked American academics and their families.
But someone is watching.
The eerie tone of Marshall N. Klimasewiski’s first novel, “The Cottagers,” skews this summer idyll from the get-go. Remember what the movie “Jaws” did for ocean beaches? Klimasewiski’s take on the isolated summer cabin may leave readers squirming, unsure what dangers they face when heading into the wilderness for an infusion of peace and quiet.
The watcher is 19-year-old Cyrus, a motherless loner whose father is writing obsessively about Charles L. Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll. He has a keen eye, distinguishing easily between second-home owners and one-week renters, and an unsavory habit of terrorizing the outsiders. He breaks into the cabin of one sleeping couple on their last night, screams obscenities and then watches in glee as they run from the cabin and down the road in panic. He ransacks the place, steals a camera and binoculars and heads to the nearby beach, where he tosses the electronic booty into the Pacific as if it were an offering to his savage demons.
“It was actually natural to take advantage of the cottagers -- it was very easy, and something so easy was probably natural and, on some level, meant to be,” Cyrus explains. “They came here to the edge of the woods and they wanted a glimpse into your wilderness, secretly, even if the narrowest part of them imagined they wanted to find the wilderness not mysterious or awful at all, but only pretty and cozy and threaded by well-marked trails.”
But Cyrus is a babe in the woods compared with the vicious academics.
Nicholas, a complacent New York historian on sabbatical, and his Indian-born Muslim wife Samina have rented a cottage and invited two long-time friends, Laurel and Greg. Laurel, who is close to tenure in an English department in St. Louis, Mo., has engineered a semester leave to coincide with Nicholas’. Her husband, Greg, is between teaching jobs, having an affair with a woman back home and working on a biography of John Ruskin, John Everett Millais and Julia Margaret Cameron -- “eminent Victorians and friends, more or less, although Ruskin was frightened of the imperious Mrs. Cameron, and Millais stole Ruskin’s wife from him or saved her from him (pick your narrator).”
Greg is secretive, competitive, prone to head off on his own. When he learns that Cyrus’ father is not just a fan of “Alice in Wonderland” but is related to Dodgson and has “family stuff -- boxes from the attics” -- he sniffs around Cyrus’ place, fantasizing about scholarly larceny.
Nicholas, meanwhile, has a hidden agenda: He has asked Laurel to keep an eye on Samina to see if there is something amiss in their marriage. This sojourn is his way to make up for being unwilling to return to India with their 4-year-old daughter Hilda, and he senses Samina’s disappointment. Laurel’s friendship with Samina has cooled since their college days, but Laurel takes to the task with fervor.
Klimasewiski sets his characters’ active minds spinning along, writing with equal agility from each point of view. The cottagers’ relationships are complicated by weird Cyrus, who has been “stalking” them since the day they moved in. He hangs around the cottage, and soon he has become a favorite of Hilda’s.
Then Klimasewiski stages a mysterious disappearance on a rocky Pacific beach. One of the five is missing and the others begin to become unhinged. Enter Cortland, a retired constable who sets his own group of junior law enforcement on the scent, causing confusion for the official investigators. But Cortland’s attentiveness is far from comforting to the missing one’s spouse. As the suspense builds, the behavior of the remaining couple becomes increasingly offensive. And Klimasewiski brings the final curtain down with a satisfyingly wicked twist.
“The Cottagers” is a remarkable debut -- accomplished in its literary architecture (the Cyrus/Lewis Carroll/Alice/Hilda/Greg thread is delightful), sophisticated in its portrait of the tensions between vacationers and year-rounders, and chillingly believable in depicting both the complicated circumstances underlying a seemingly spontaneous eruption of violence and the obsessive energies of a biographer.
Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collection “Stealing the Fire” and a contributor to Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book
Critics Circle board, at bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com.