by Jane Bradley
Unbridled Books, 2011
416 pages (hardcover)
What, if anything, consoles you in your darkest hour? The human capacity to believe—to ascribe purpose to deity or destiny—in the face of evil and deepest loss is the thread that binds Jane Bradley’s debut novel, You Believers.
One young woman believes she can survive anything if she just stays positive.
Another believes a voice from the dead saved her life.
A man believes he is untouchable, a fearless devil with a right and a destiny to control others.
A formerly devout mother shakily returns to Christian faith when her daughter goes missing.
A search and rescue worker who experiences the best and worst of humanity believes in moving forward anyway, one day at a time.
The story begins on a summer day when Katy Connor goes out shopping and never returns. People go missing every day, says the narrator, Shelby Waters:
It happens like that. You think you’re going home. And some picture of your face ends up on a grainy black-and-white flyer tacked to a phone pole. Your image fades in sunlight. The thin paper sign of you tatters, fluttering in the breeze. Strangers pass by, study your face for something familiar, think maybe they’ve seen you somewhere. But they haven’t. You are a stranger. You are lost.
Shelby knows. She faced that personal loss years ago and now faces it daily on her clients’ behalf. She’s the hardscrabble private detective you call “when you’ve got nothing left but worry and waiting for the phone to ring.” When Katy Connor goes missing and the police believe she’s run off with a drug-dealer boyfriend, Katy’s fiancé Billy and mother Livy turn to Shelby to take up the search.
Despite their shared loss, Billy and Livy cannot grieve and wait together. As the empty weeks stretch on, Livy returns to the Bible verses that used to sustain her, telling herself to focus on the positive, to have faith, to pray harder, convinced God will reward her sacrifices. Billy, meanwhile, drinks himself under the table, lashing out at Livy and his friends for their stiff politeness, their ungrounded positivity, their false assurances.
They were saying something about time. Oh, God, Livy was saying something about in the Lord’s own time. She was trying to climb back into her religion, like religion was a tree you could climb into to keep you safe from a flood. Billy couldn’t stand any more of anyone’s words that kept trying to say everything was going to be all right.
Shelby does what she can to support both of them without taking her eyes off the end game: finding Katy’s body. She, too, has her own way of facing the worst. She trusts her gut. She puts one foot in front of the other. She stocks her truck with Valium, blankets, shovels. In one emotional scene, when Livy asks her if she believes in anything, she replies, “I believe in a lot of things.”
“Like the world of the living.”
“That’s a start,” she said. “No afterlife?”
“I believe in the living and the dead.”
“Do you believe in spirits? Is that why you do this, to put lost souls to rest?”
“I do what I do to put the living to rest.”
So Shelby continues her search, interviewing, visiting Katy’s favorite places, following the cadaver dogs through the woods. There’s no need for a spoiler alert here. The reader knows from the first page that Katy will not be coming home, yet Bradley maintains a taut suspense and an increasing pace in her slow revelation of details. She also builds strong empathy for her broken characters, including those that have caused so much devastation to others. The diversity and complexities of their responses to loss are the emotional engine driving the story forward.
So whose beliefs are “right”? In the end, Bradley’s characters survive not because of the substance of their faith, but simply because of its existence. Livy’s prayers do not bring her daughter back. Shelby’s relentless search and rescue work doesn’t end her own suffering. But each person finds something to commit to, and that commitment gives them a reason to go on surviving.
You Believers is an intensely quiet thriller that dignifies the human spirit even as it reveals the darkest impulses and contradictions of the soul.