A pilgrim is a person who travels to a sacred place for religious reasons. Pilgrim Jones, the haunted heroine of Melanie Finn’s vivid novel The Gloaming, is a seeker of sorts as well. Unmoored by the dissolution of her marriage and a tragic accident in which three Swiss children perish, she sets off for Africa hoping to find a reason to keep living. Though there are many elements of the thriller and mystery genres in Finn’s book, they are used to explore unsolvable issues of grief, life-meaning, and human responsibility rather than the mere solving of crimes. There are no neat answers for the questions Pilgrim wants answered.
The first half of the book is devoted to Pilgrim’s story. Chapters alternate between her life in Switzerland after her husband has left her and her seemingly aimless wanderings through little towns in Tanzania several months later. In both places she is a stranger and object of speculation by the locals. In Switzerland she’s a pariah for being at the wheel of a car which kills three children after swerving to avoid a dog on a rain-slicked road. “Kindermorderin” the townspeople hiss when she walks by—child-murderess. In Tanzania she is more of a curiosity—a young, beautiful American woman in remote villages which lack basic amenities such as reliable electricity. Though the two settings couldn’t be less alike, Pilgrim is a sleepwalker in both, staggering about with no discernible purpose or direction.
A sexual assault and a curse serve as her wake up calls. She leaves one Tanzanian village for another in which she encounters two people as damaged as she is. She discovers who she is and what she must do through her interactions with Tom and Gloria, who have both ended up in Africa to escape their own demons. As with the detective who investigates and absolves her of responsibility back in Switzerland, Tom and Gloria seem more like manifestations of Pilgrim’s inner struggle rather than fully fleshed human beings. But just after the halfway point, the book makes an abrupt turn.
The remainder of the story is told from the point of view of Pilgrim’s supporting cast, thus further distancing the reader from any hope of a pat resolution or even a conclusive insight into what makes her tick. It is a jarring narrative shift but it serves to underscore the larger themes of Finn’s book—that there is no easy way to come to terms with our sins and no one way to go on living once we have. By removing the reader from Pilgrim’s story Finn forces us to see her as a stranger after investing time and feeling in her company. In the last few pages Finn reunites Pilgrim with the grotesque man who had assaulted her years before. But this is not the aimless Pilgrim we knew and their meeting is told from the monster’s point of view. Even the monster is no longer the monster he once was.
by Melanie FinnTwo Dollar Radio; 318 p.