It’s the rare novel that can detail horrific evil and still illuminate the best of the human spirit, turning a reader thoughtful, inward, almost spiritual. That’s what Chattanooga native Jane Bradley—the author of two acclaimed story collections and a novella, Power Lines, which was a New York Times Notable Book—has managed to do with her new book. You Believers, Bradley’s first full-length novel, is far more sophisticated than genre fiction—no canned plots or predictable voice and pacing here—perhaps because it’s the work of an author inspired by the loss of people she knew, flesh and blood taken too early from the world. (In fact, ten percent of the book’s profits will go to Community United Effort, a Wilmington, North Carolina, organization “that gives steady guidance and comfort to those seeking loved ones lost.”)
The narrator of You Believers is Shelby Waters, a diminutive and feisty product of the small-town South (an itty-bitty dot on the map called Suck Creek). Shelby is inspired to found a search-and-rescue agency for the missing after her sister Darly is abducted: “You never believe it at first. You go looking for the simplest explanation, the thing you want to believe, like she just met up with a friend and forgot to call,” writes Bradley, a professor of creative writing at the University of Toledo. “But they found her white nurse’s cap on the shelf in a phone booth, her little white MG broken down by the side of the road. No signs of a struggle, just a car, keys hanging in the ignition. The car had had some kind of engine trouble. It was always getting her stuck on the side of the road. She’d probably be alive today if she’d done like my daddy always said to and bought a Dodge. A year later two hunters out for deer found Darly in the brush in the north Georgia mountains where only hunters go.”
The faces of children, teenagers, and women—so many women—are posted on bulletin boards all over Shelby Waters’s home, which doubles as the nerve center for her organization. She recruits volunteer searchers, helps families navigate law-enforcement bureaucracy, comforts, interviews, and—sometimes, after one criminal finks on another—aims her walking stick in the brush where a victim’s mud-caked jeans, or the jawbone of a missing daughter, suddenly come into full view.
“It’s a calling, really, what I do,” she thinks. “The way some folks are called to the church. When someone goes missing, people do a lot of praying, and being from Suck Creek, I know a lot about praying and sitting around and more praying when something needs to be done. And, well, that bothers me. All that she’s in God’s hands and comforting talk and a whole lot of it’ll be all rights. There’s lots of times it won’t be all right. It’ll be hell, and my job is to get folks through it.”
And that’s what Katy Connor’s family needs: someone to get them through it. A bartender who loved gardening and fixing up bric-a-brac, who had a soft spot for bad boys but was engaged to a nice guy, Katy disappears one afternoon from Wilmington, North Carolina, where she lives with her bricklayer fiancé and has a guardian angel figurine in her bedroom. “Katy Connor thought she was safe,” Bradley writes. “She was supposed to be safe at three o’clock in the afternoon in the parking lot of a strip mall on one of the busiest streets in town. She did nothing wrong. She bought a bag of clothes and walked to her truck. It can happen 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.”
You Believers is the story of what happens to Katy, told not only from Shelby Waters’s point of view, but also from the perspective of her abductors, her mother, and her fiancé. The reader learns gradually about Katy’s fate, unfolding simultaneously with the stories of the criminals, as well as the grief and mourning in particular of Katy’s mother, who leaves her life in Chattanooga to move to Wilmington to help find her daughter.
The writing is crisp and consuming, painfully detailed; it is virtually impossible to stop reading, despite the heartbreaking narrative. But beyond the gripping story, the triumph of this book—for both reader and author—is its illustration of the capacity for finding deliverance, even after life is devastated by evil.
Jane Bradley will sign copies of You Believers at 7 p.m. on May 19 at Barnes & Noble Booksellers in Brentwood.