A River of Death Passion, betrayal, and infanticide are at the core of Jean Hanff Korelitz's latest novel, The Savvathday River , a riveting tale set in a small New England town ruled by rigid values and minimal tolerance. Utterly chilling in its depiction of both a horrifying crime and the narrow-mindedness of small-town America, the Sabbathday River is an unnerving yet fascinating treatise on the darker side of humanity. It's 1985 at the peak of the picturesque fall season in the tiny, ultraconservative town of Goddard, New Hampshire. Forty-something Naomi Roth is jogging along the Sabbathday River when she spots what she thinks is someone's doll floating in the water. But to her horror, Naomi discovers the doll is actually the body of a newborn baby girl: pale, lifeless, and bearing a puncture mark through her tiny chest.
Naomi carries the dead baby to the local police station, and suspicion quickly turns to young Heather Pratt, already shunned by the townsfolk for her flagrant adulterous affair with Ashley Deacon, a local married man. Heather has already given birth to an illegitimate child of Ashley's a daughter named Polly coincidentally within days of Ashley's wife bearing him a son. Heather's sins are compounded when she continues her affair with Ashley after Polly's birth and then further offends the sensibilities of several locals by breast-feeding her daughter in public, an act that angers a local storekeeper so much she ends up calling in the police.
Then Heather's world falls apart when her only living relative, hergrandmother,dies and Ashley breaks off their relationship abruptly and crudely. Heartbroken, Heather becomes reclusive and withdrawn, but townsfolk notice as the months go by that she appears to be pregnant again. And when the police pay Heather a visit while investigating the murder of the baby in the river, they discover she has recently given birth, though there is no baby to be found.
Subjected to an arduous and questionable interrogation by the local D.A., Heather at first denies that she was pregnant at all, then admits to having a baby that was stillborn, which she buried in a pond behind her house. But she insists that her baby was not the one that was pulled from the river. Heather's story is supported by the discovery of a second infant's body in the very pond she described. Yet rather than seeing this as evidence of her innocence with regard to the first baby's death, the D.A. constructs an intricate and somewhat bizarre scenario that fingers Heather for the death of both babies.
Naomi feels compelled to try to help Heather. For one thing, Heather is Naomi's star employee in the cooperative she put together to create and sell homemade quilts, rugs, and samplers, an effort that has blossomed into a highly successful catalogue business. But Naomi also feels a bond with the ostracized Heather in that Naomi, too, has been treated like an outsider by the townspeople despite having moved to the area nine years before.
In fact, the only person Naomi can truly call a friend is Judith Friedman, a lawyer and fellow ex-New Yorker who recently moved to the area with her husband. Naomi eventually convinces Judith to take on Heather's defense, which only solidifies the women's position as outcasts. While the story posed by the D.A. seems utterly far-fetched and ridiculous at first, bits of evidence are gradually uncovered that make it more and more believable, though no less shocking.
Heather's trial is depicted in salacious and intricate detail, a dramatic climax that raises as many questions as it answers. All the loose threads are eventually sewn into place, creating a tapestry of twisted values, chaotic morality, and unsettling insights that is totally absorbing and utterly unforgettable. The Sabbathday River delivers a scalding commentary on self-righteous intolerance, then offers up a number of appropriate and wholly satisfying comeuppances. In the end, Korelitz punctuates it all with a few surprising and provocative twists that cast a new light over all that came before, giving readers pause to reconsider their own hard-held values.
Beth Amos is the author of several mainstream suspense thrillers, includingSecond Sight, Eyes of Night and Cold White Fury . She lives in Richmond, Virginia, and is at work on her next novel.