cover image The Flicker of Old Dreams

The Flicker of Old Dreams

Susan Henderson. Harper Perennial, $15.99 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-0-06-268670-1

Henderson’s grim and meaty second novel (after Up from the Blue) tackles the subject of death in an all-consuming way. The fictional town in which the story is set, Petroleum, Mont., population 182, has been dying for over two decades, since an accident in a grain elevator took the life of a local high schooler and shut down the town’s main source of employment. The protagonist is the mortician’s daughter, Mary, who embalms bodies in the basement of her father’s house. She is a shy misfit whose dreams of becoming an artist have long since been extinguished, though she remains awed by the majesty of the barren landscape into which she was born. The townspeople resent that their town is dead, and none are content, although Henderson allows readers an occasional glimpse of stolen laughs and stolen love. When the dead teen’s brother, Robert, returns to keep his mother company in her dying days, the community’s old resentments resurface. Meanwhile, in Robert, Mary finds a soul mate and a fellow oddball who does not conform to the expectations of parents or townspeople. Henderson gives a glimmer of hope for the future at the end of this meditation on death, grief, and emotional freedom, resulting in a contemplative and memorable novel. (Mar.)