Gus and her husband Owen live in the Pennsylvania countryside, remote and solitary by choice. Gus is a well received painter whose specialty is the quality of light on still lifes and landscapes and Owen is a critically acclaimed writer who has never quite found commercial success. They have retreated from their busy city life, to this house in the middle of nowhere to recover emotionally and professionally from Gus' affair with the father of one of her students. Owen has been unable to write in the handful of years since Gus' compulsive revelation of the affair, while Gus, by contrast, has lighted upon a new and energizing idea, wanting to capture the local WWI dead whose newspaper obituaries, with pictures, she has found crumpled up and used as insulation in the old farmhouse. But as the putative reason for Owen's writer's block, she cannot discuss her bubbling ideas with Owen, too aware that her productivity highlights afresh his own blank pages. When a teacher on sabbatical moves into the ramshackle place next door, Gus finds a confidante of sorts in Alison, herself a painter. Gus finds the emotional intimacy in her relationship with Alison that she is so unconsciously missing in her marriage so she confides perhaps more than she should to this virtual stranger. When Alison's daughter, Nora, comes to visit, the balance of everyone's relationships changes. Nora is a budding writer and she venerates Owen, spending hours in his company out in his converted barn, where he has done little writing thus far.
The novel is quietly intense and like many character driven novels, doesn't present much action to move the story, relying instead on the psychological drama of the main characters. Gus narrates the novel from her position as the guilty party, sharing with the reader her desire to finally exonerate herself, her need to appear magnanimous to Owen, and her quest to seek understanding and absolution even as her art reflects her unstated, and perhaps unconscious, thoughts on the difference between potential and consequences, not only in reference to the boys dead so young and long ago but also in her own life and choices. With the focus entirely from Gus' point of view, there is the looming question of just how well she actually knows her husband and what drives him but ultimately, she is the only one left to tell the story after his death. Although little happens in the way of plot, there is a rising claustrophobic feeling to the novel, a subtly increasing tension that pulls the reader inexorably along ever closer to the fact of Owen's death. Black has written a stunning tale of jealousy, betrayal, and the treacherous undercurrents of a marriage already bowed to the breaking point by stress. As for the challenge of the ending? It ended in the only way that it could, an explosive release to the pent up tension of this carefully constructed tale. (Yes, I figured it out before the end. Will you?)