The Gloaming, Melanie Finn’s third book, is about Pilgrim Jones, a white, American women whose husband, a human rights attorney, leaves her for his mistress, more or less stranding her in Switzerland. Shortly thereafter, for possibly extenuating reasons that are not immediately clear, she crashes her car into a bus stand, killing three children. The Swiss locals ostracize her, and she leaves for South Africa.
Once there, she attempts to settle in and lay low, making bizarre choices that draw attention and leave her vulnerable at multiple turns. She encounters a doctor, a hotelier, a police officer, and a maybe-hitman. Her immediate past hovers over every conversation, as no one can understand exactly what would bring an American here by choice. Eventually, after taking possession of a potentially cursed package, Pilgrim leaves for Tanzania, where she meets people who are just as skeptical but much less sympathetic.
Though the plot, on paper, is not particularly complicated, how Finn chose to tell the story certainly is. The structure of the book is both effective and frustrating, drawing out tension and constructing Pilgrim’s headspace as frantic and scattered. Pilgrim narrates the first half, relaying two strands simultaneously—starting in South Africa on April 27 and in Switzerland on March 12, the date of the car accident. It’s a bit of a drag when a tense moment is undercut by the end of a chapter and a 5,000-mile geographical shift, and it is hard to see the bigger picture while navigating the early sections. It can feel like the book is working against itself, sapping the energy just when it’s getting good. The Gloaming asks for faith from the reader, faith that things will pay off in the end.
Finn has an excellent sense of how altering structure and perspective alter the reading experience, and she demonstrates this by going far out on a limb, switching away from Pilgrim’s first-person perspective right at its most exciting moment, replacing it with a third-person perspective that roves among a handful of characters until the book’s end. It’s jarring, but the writing is excellent enough to protect from whiplash. Every perspective is one that the reader is at least a little familiar with; they’re all characters Pilgrim has encountered.
What makes The Gloaming such a wonderful book is the way Finn plays with these elements. The first half is largely a character exploration, deconstructing the recent events that have fundamentally changed who Pilgrim is and how she perceives herself. Still, many things remain mysterious, and when the perspective switches from hers to that of the detective who had been investigating the circumstances of the car accident and it turns into something resembling a mystery novel, it still feels like the same book.
These jumps in perspective illuminate how other characters feel about Pilgrim, and this is, of course, the essential missing piece from the earlier chapters. In most cases, Pilgrim sees herself as a well-meaning, generally decent person who is caught up in an unfortunate situation. She did not murder the children, but it was her fault that they were killed. But what other people have to say on the subject is at least as important as what Pilgrim offers.
In the world of The Gloaming, people of dubious moral character do things that are morally dubious at best. Finn launches a two-pronged assault with the plotting and the depth of her characters. Some of what they’re doing is horrifying, and they’re often doing it to people for whom, only a few pages earlier, I felt deep empathy. But the way their lives have intertwined calls for it. It always seems reasonable. Finn is prying at what it means to be guilty or innocent, not in a court but in the world and in one’s own head. Does fault matter? Does a justification? If something has fundamentally changed who you are, does it change the perception of what you did in the past?
The Gloaming won’t answer those questions. But after bearing witness to the desperation and sorrow that Pilgrim and everyone else have left in their wake, one question looms even larger: Can these people sleep at night? Can any of us?