The protagonist of Michael Koryta’s latest novel of mystery and suspense, Never Far Away, has two lives: the one she had to abandon, and the presently endangered one that she is desperate to extend into the future.
Before, she was Nina Morgan, a mother, pilot, and witness to a crime. Because she could identify the criminals, she was supposed to be murdered, too. But her would-be hitmen, dissatisfied with their boss, agreed to fake her death instead. For her family’s safety, she had to disappear.
Now she is Leah Trenton, a Maine wilderness guide known as “Aunt Leah” to her own children, someone who never calls or visits, and the person they should contact by satellite messenger if anything happens to their dad. When he is killed in a car accident, “Aunt Leah” reacts on instinct and returns for her children, Hailey and Nick.
Re-entering the grid when people still want Nina/Leah dead sets off fifty-four tension-filled chapters, almost half of them told from her perspective. Koryta, who lives in Bloomington and Camden, Maine, gives a nod to his home state via Nick, who wears an Indianapolis Colts hat and t-shirt. At 13, Hailey doesn’t remember her mother; her mental antennae pick up danger frequencies when the trio go into hiding in the gorgeously depicted Maine backcountry and Allagash River region.
In Never Far Away, Dax Blackwell (a key player in Koryta’s 2019 novel If She Wakes) returns to the scene. He’s a precocious young mastermind in the family business of professional hitmen; his father and uncle were the two who agreed to fake Nina Morgan’s death. After the boss had them killed, the younger Blackwell prepares to avenge his family’s deaths. He skillfully pulls strings, decides fates, and reveals plot points to both character and reader alike—much like the author of this novel. Blackwell also understands authorship. After commandeering a seaplane pilot to drop him off in the Maine wilderness, he says, “…you do not tell anyone about this exciting plot twist in your life for, oh, one week. Sound fair? You’ll have quite the story, and you can share it with the world one week from now; I won’t mind.”
It turns out that the art of storytelling—knowing when to conceal and when to reveal—also applies to the work of a professional killer.
Koryta delivers the occasional moment to exhale, offering snappy dialogue and clever character observations. The rival hitman, nicknamed Bleak, is described as “…all lean muscle, no body fat, as if he bench-pressed any incoming carbohydrate before he ate it.”
The tightly wound plot ensnares all who come in contact with the cast of characters, including a few innocent bystanders. An occupational hazard, Dax Blackwell might philosophize, his sections prone to moral musings. Leah Trenton’s perspective is that of a mother who will do anything to protect her children, culminating in a heart-stopping showdown. “Cool your mind, Leah,” she reminds herself. By the end of this novel, readers may need to follow suit.
Sarah Layden is the author of Trip Through Your Wires, a novel, and The Story I Tell Myself About Myself, winner of the Sonder Press Chapbook Competition. Her short fiction appears in Boston Review, Blackbird, Moon City Review, Zone 3, Booth, Best Microfiction 2020, and elsewhere. A two-time Society of Professional Journalists award winner, her recent essays, interviews and articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Poets & Writers, Salon, The Millions, Ladies’ Home Journal, The Indianapolis Star, and The Writer’s Chronicle. She is an Assistant Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, where she teaches creative writing. Visit her online at www.sarahlayden.com.
Monthly reviews of books written by Indiana authors are made possible by the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Awards and Indiana Humanities. Opinions expressed in this review are solely those of the reviewer, not any affiliated entity.