Reading: The Captives by Debra Jo Immergut

I’ve fallen behind. In everything. And although I have finished reading nine books since my last Reading post on April 23 (and tossed aside three more after having reached between page 50 and 100), I’m choosing to focus on only one because I want to use what little influence I have to encourage its wider readership and I worry it will be lost in the glut of novels promoted as summer/beach reads, misrepresented by comparisons with all those novels with Girl or Train or Window in their titles, which would be both reductive and mistaken, but all too often it is the easy-out sort of comparison that gets published and called a review.

I don’t review. I appreciate. (Which is another reason I’m not writing about a lot of the eight other books I read since my April 23rd post.) So, I give you:

The Captives, Debra Jo Immergut, Hardcover, 288pp, June 2018, Ecco

Frank Lundquist is a psychologist whose loss of emotional control with a young patient cost him his private practice, reducing him to a basement-office position as inmate psychologist in a New York State women’s prison.

Into his office walks the girl-of-his-high school-dreams, Miranda Green, whose lack of emotional judgment cost her the freedom and privileged life into which she’d been born, reducing her to the state-issued yellow uniform and inmate number she wears.

In chapters with alternating points of view — Frank’s narrative in first-person, Miranda’s in close-third — the compelling trajectory of their re-union and re-acquaintance is teased, piecemeal, interwoven with a tessellation of details from their histories — together and separately — creating a psychological thriller in which each detail matters, the pieces adding up to a carefully wrought, unexpected whole.

Both Frank and Miranda are in the grip of obsessions, in thrall to their pasts, most especially regrets about who they might have been and wishes about opportunities missed, and the yearning to, somehow, undo what was done — or, to do now what was not done then. Debra Jo Immergut masterfully observes the ways in which people operate from different levels and layers of identity in pursuit of their life-goals, in pursuit of love, in pursuit of escape, in pursuit of revision — the grown up version of the child’s game-losing plea, “Pretend that didn’t happen!” This is an exploration of the lengths to which one will go when the other players in that life as playground-scenario taunt with, “No takebacks!”

And make no mistake, while this is a fast-moving, stay-up-all-night read about crime, punishment, escape, and Mr. Ripley-esque otherness, those are maguffins — fascinating and captivating maguffins, but, maguffins nevertheless, tools with which Debra Jo Immergut explores the nature of human behavior, the journey to and from self, and the shapes desire takes, and the limits and lines people cross when desperate to extricate themselves from their past, their present, the reality they’ve made. This is about what someone will do when faced with the dichotomy of “pretend that didn’t happen” versus “no takebacks!”

Along the way there is wonderful, well-shaped prose, including my very favorite line, one I wish I’d written: “The last thing she wanted to do was kill herself only to wake up alive.” That’s a great line and it works on all sorts of levels in this narrative.

Both Frank and Miranda have nearly dead past selves; Frank’s with an ex-wife and a once promising career, Miranda with a dangerous ex-lover and a father who was once a successful politician but has become an operator in the shadows of not quite legal lobbying, and a sister who died in a car sort-of accident, and … well, I don’t want to give away too many pieces of the story, the fabric of which you will enjoy discovering as you read.

Suffice to say that when Frank and Miranda meet, later in life, both in failure mode, Frank instantly recognizes his high school dream girl, while Miranda seems not to know who Frank is, rather, she merely sees him as a means to an end, a stranger, until she realizes who he is — or, did she actually know all the time? It’s all part of the mystery: What is discovered and known when? By whom? Who uses whom? Who crosses more lines and is the most double-crossing and back-pedaling? And when and how are the truths and untruths recognized, who on the canvas of characters — the other inmates who Miranda befriends or makes enemies of, Frank’s renowned psychiatrist father, and his drug addicted brother and his dealer — are complicit in what unfolds?

Frank asks at the beginning of the narrative who knows what they would do in circumstances such as he finds himself in, a question that also applies to Miranda, and it is that question which drives the novel. These two main characters begin the story with each of them trying to let go of the dead-self they once were, but in the course of their journey, each wonders if the other might not be able to revive that lost part of them. Is it possible to erase the past in the present? Or, are we forever trapped in who we are, who we’ve been, and the choices we’ve made?

This is a tale about the different ways in which a person can be held captive outside of prison bars, caged by circumstance and emotions, history and desire. Debra Jo Immergut does the question justice and It keeps the reader guessing and riveted in this kickass debut novel.