It was not suicide. Of that, 17-year-old Jesse Matson is certain. He is positive his father wouldn't have killed himself while on their hunting trip in the wintry woods of Minnesota. He remains convinced even when the town sheriff rules that the gunshot wound Harold Matson suffered was self-inflicted. A visit from his late father - a gruesome figure who emerges from the lake a few days after his death with a face "like a burned-out building, blackened at the windows and caved in on itself" - and the ghost's declaration that "I didn't want to leave, Jesse," is, in many ways, the final nail in the coffin: Jesse vows to find his father's killer and exact revenge.
"Who do you think you are, anyway? Hamlet?" Jesse's friend asks him after hearing of the visit from beyond the grave. "Next thing, Jesse, you'll be telling me your old man was murdered and your uncle's the one that did it."Exactly. The novel's title, Undiscovered Country (taken from one of the Danish prince's soliloquies), isn't the only thing Lin Enger, brother of well-known novelist Leif Enger, borrows from Hamlet in his graceful rumination on the ties that bind. The likely culprit? Jesse's uncle, Clay, who had courted Jesse's mom back in high school before his older brother swooped in and made her his bride. Jesse's love interest? An Ophelia-esque girl from the wrong side of the tracks.
The story is told a decade after the shooting by an adult Jesse wanting to explain his version of what happened to his little brother Magnus. Jesse, now a college English teacher, narrates carefully, with the stark, parsed cadences that come from trying to tell a story so painful it rails against words. "I inserted my finger into the nine hold, spun the dial clockwise and watched it spin back around. Then I dialed one, twice, quickly," Jesse says of his 911 call after discovering his father dead. The telling is deliberate, so that the listener will make no mistake in the hearing. Though the ending - despite a last-minute twist - is hardly a surprise, Enger's glistening prose, set so gently on the frozen lakes of Minnesota, will have readers shivering in their boots.
Iris Blasi is a writer and editor in New York City.