Orient by Christopher Bollen
This is a thriller about small town America writ large – and chunky, weighing in at 609 pages. However, it was totally gripping right from the start as each page peels away all the secrets and lies that foster in the particular community on Long Island where it is set.
Amazingly, Orient is a real place, a village of less than 1000 people right at the tip of the North Fork of Long Island; an island itself connected by a strip of causeway to L.I. The people of Orient are, of course, nothing like the characters in the book – and appear to have welcomed the attention that Bollen’s novel has brought to the area. Bollen wrote this article about the real Orient for the New York Times T magazine, and makes it sound rather a lovely place. I haven’t been to Long Island, but I have holidayed on Cape Cod and can imagine many similarities between the two areas.
The Prologue sets up the novel for us right from the start:
When people try to picture me, they undoubtedly recall only the last time they saw me, just before I went missing. There’s been a lot of speculation about the night I left the far North Fork of Long Island – how a nineteen-year-old wanted for questioning in a string of murders managed to elude police and vigilant local drivers, both parties hurrying too slow through the pale marsh frost and winter Sound winds that turn the coast beds into grisly scrap yards of ice. That part is simple: I ran. What seems lost, in the growing storm of blame, is how I got there in the first place. …
I came to Orient at tail end of summer, and I went by the name MIlls Chevern. I arrived mostly innocent. Do you remember seeing me on those last warm days?
Mills Chevern is rescued by New York architect Paul Benchley when he finds him sprawled in the hallway in front of his neighbour’s appartment. Mills is a sofa-hopping junkie trying his luck in NYC, a frequent visitor to Paul’s neighbour. When Paul offers to save him by taking him out to his late parents’ house in Orient to help clear it, nothing more expected other than hard work and some company, Mills jumps at the chance to clean his act up becoming Paul’s defacto foster-kid.
They arrive in town on the day of the annual end of summer picnic hosted by Paul’s Orient neighbours, the Muldoons. It’s obvious from the start to Mills that there is no love lost between the Muldoons and Benchley. Nearly everyone is suspicious of Mills, and Paul’s motives for bringing this edgy outsider into their community – except for Beth Shepherd, an artist who has recently returned to Orient from the city too with her Eastern European artist husband.
It’s not long before the tensions in the small town are exposed.
- The Muldoons are stalwarts of the Orient Historical Society, that seeks to preserve the area and is promoting a new scheme to buy property owner’s development rights to stop Orient becoming like the Hamptons
- Adam Pruitt, who has started a security firm to rival Bryan Muldoon’s is trying to drum up business by raising residents’ paranoia over what goes on at the Plum Island Animal Lab – a government facility on a nearby island.
- There are huge tensions between the ‘year-rounders’ as exemplified by the Muldoons, and the incomers, like the rich artists Luz and Nathan from NYC who bought the old Oysterponds Inn and putting in pools etc.
- Beth’s husband Gavril is friends with Luz and Nathan, but now they’re all here, Gavril is so absorbed in his art, her own has faltered and she’s pregnant but can’t tell him… yet.
Then Jeff Trader is found dead, his body tied by rope underwater so he drowned. Is it murder or suicide? Jeff was the local handyman, he had keys to all the houses in Orient so he could do everyone’s odd jobs and they’ve gone, he was often drunk. Magdalena, an old lady and long-time resident who is the voice of reason on the Orient Historical Society board, knew there was something wrong and thinks he was murdered – and the jar of keys is missing. She asks Beth to find his workbook, she’s sure there’s something in it, and Beth takes Mills along for the ride.
Mills will, in coming weeks, find himself always in the wrong place at the wrong time as the tensions in the village ratchet up and more people die. They want a scapegoat, and as we know from the prologue, Mills is it. Mills and Beth place themselves in great danger, but are compelled to pick away at all the secrets and lies that everyone in town has, including their own! Watching over it all is the Bug Lighthouse, a metaphor for an all-seeing eye that knows everything.
Orient is a complex thriller. The different tensions in the town drive the plot first this way, then that, adding more and more questions that need to be answered as events happen and new information comes to light. I never guessed whodunnit until their identity stared me in the face. It’s cleverly constructed too – starting with the entire large cast of characters nearly all together in the one place at the Muldoon’s picnic. This pool of possible perpetrators gradually declines throughout the novel as they die or are otherwise eliminated from Mills’s and Beth’s enquiries.
You can see how inhabitants such as the Muldoons come up with their schemes to protect their heritage with, so they think, good intentions – for the benefit of their community, not realising that such conservative views will polarise local opinion, and probably lead to the wrong kind of rich people being the only ones who can afford to buy properties there like Luz and Nathan. The conflicts between new and old money, history versus progress set against family infighting and unneighbourly selfishness, add a rich texture to Orient and the characters are intriguing, all getting their spots in the limelight.
Summer may be gone and winter approaching – but things are just beginning to hot up in Orient, and the suspense (maintained throughout the 609 pages) is killing! Highly recommended. (9/10)
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Orient by Christopher Bollen. Pub April 2015 by Simon & Schuster. Hardback 624 pages.