PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLERS centering on, and authored by, women are all the rage, but their essential storytelling structure — a straight line — is no different from that of their male counterparts’ efforts. How frustrating. The dominant shape of narrative fiction in Western publishing has been consistent, not just since the 18th century, but since Aristotle: the climb and fall of Freytag’s pyramid, with every story mimicking a predictable (male) climax. When marginalized voices edge into the mainstream, however, new storytelling shapes — circles, omegas, dust clouds, vortices, inexplicable spiny forms — can emerge. Within these contours, the story’s action may not rise and fall in steady lines but rather echo, buzz, sustain, or undulate.
It’s a rare writer who takes a chance on form in a genre as standardized as the psychological thriller, but that is what Debra Jo Immergut has done with her first book in 26 years. The Captives, though it centers on and is authored by a woman, is not a novel with the drilling momentum of its cohort. It reveals itself in a series of overlapping stories, moving in space and time in balletic defiance of the narrative conventions that ground most modern thrillers.
Miranda Greene, an inmate at a prison in upstate New York, is sent to therapy with the prison’s disgraced psychologist, Frank Lundquist. Frank recognizes Miranda from high school, although she doesn’t recognize him, and seeing her sets off old, emotional tremors in him:
Core concept: We age, we grow, we struggle very diligently to evolve and progress, but by some inescapable law of nature, the teenage self remains the essential self […] And sometimes it will catch up to you, throw its gangly arms around you, dampen your neck with its hot breath.
I was in the grip of that high school freshman. That boy. And I was still in her thrall, still clinging to the locker-room wall, unable to tear my gaze away.
Having nothing else in his life, the psychologist becomes obsessed with his patient. In Frank, Miranda sees a final installment of her progressively self-destructive attachments to men, and she tries in vain to escape his orbit. Events depressingly mundane (inmate suicides, guard corruption) and highly unlikely (an order for matching lingerie, an escape) ensue.
Each character narrates (Frank in first person, Miranda in close third) the stories of their meetings, as well as of their individual failures, passions, and crimes. The plot is slow and spare, progressing in the same plenty-of-nothing atmosphere that characterizes life in prison, but Miranda’s and Frank’s pasts (and their imagined futures) are extraordinarily rich. Story after story fills up the empty time in prison and the “therapy” hours Miranda spends with Frank: her dalliances with terrible men, his exploded marriage, her lost sister, his lost brother. In another novel this would all be background, but in The Captives it’s the narrative’s engine: the past is immediate, inescapable, and far more vibrant and mysterious than the gray present.
The treasure of Immergut’s novel is in the unusual shapes its narrative takes. Miranda’s and Frank’s stories unfold out of chronological order and without a visible strategy. Key plot points skip by with no more emphasis than minor exposition, and when secrets are revealed, the reader must scour earlier pages to determine if they were already out and are just now imbued with additional meaning given the new characterization. Frank emerges not as a basically good man in a rough patch but as a deluded nut, and Miranda’s lostness, her misfortune, evolves until the reader finds her equal parts complicit and trapped. Immergut holds back the reason Miranda is in prison (which everyone in the novel knows) until the final 10 pages of the book, but it’s not a “twist,” just a carefully guarded scene.
Through all this, I was reminded of another thriller written by and about a woman that’s constructed in a nonlinear shape: Felicia C. Sullivan’s Follow Me into the Dark, the bleakest, speediest, most three-dimensional thriller I’ve ever read. Like The Captives, it darts and zigzags between narrators and eras nimbly, forcing the reader to stay alert and even reread passages rather than gulp and gallop through the text. In both cases, this extra attention is far more pleasure than pain.
The two books also have in common a delicate web of relationships between narrators and their families, connections long-calcified but brittle as candy. Both novels are unafraid to tangle with the selfish choices and compromises parents make that sometimes destroy their children. Miranda’s parents allow a hasty cover-up of a preventable death to save her father’s political career, while Frank’s father, a groundbreaking psychologist who used baby Frank as a subject, makes messes of both his sons. As Frank puts it,
Accomplished parents loom over your life, am I right? As you trudge your path, you remain constantly aware of the one they forged, tracking alongside yours. But at some point, you sense that they have somehow traversed more lush, more rewarding landscapes, scaled grander mountains and attained more majestic vistas, while you have been foggily dawdling and looping around in the flats.
Immergut and Sullivan prove their daring by telling stories with distinctly un-masculine shapes in a well-established, highly masculine genre. Both The Captives and Follow Me into the Dark circle and dive and shimmy, avoiding the Freytagian pyramid entirely. These authors reclaim narrative by reshaping it to fit their idiosyncratic ideas of storytelling. Plus, both are skilled prose stylists working in a genre that does not demand a specific style: Frank refers to Miranda’s high school friends as “the more insistently blow-dried girls,” and Miranda describes a friend of her father’s as having “a face like an unfrosted cake.”
Not a word is out of place in The Captives. What a rare gift. If you’re a reader looking for a multidimensional thriller with exceptional characterization, watertight prose, and a wealth of uncomfortable, fascinating ideas about family and identity, Debra Jo Immergut has, at long last, written one for you.