From the very beginning of The Lace Reader, the main character tells us she is a liar. The first time I read this book, I paid attention to that comment, but I could not detect any lies and eventually I forgot about that statement. As it turns out, Towner is not really lying, but Brunonia Barry’s novel is an outstanding example of the use of an unreliable narrator, and a haunting story.
Towner Whitney has not been home to Salem, Massachusetts, for 17 years, ever since her twin sister Lyndley committed suicide and she herself had a breakdown and was institutionalized. Now her brother calls asking her to return home because her great-aunt Eva has disappeared.
Towner’s female relatives are all unusual. She comes from a family of lace readers–people who can read the future in a piece of lace–and although she refuses to read, she is clairvoyant and can read people’s minds. These abilities, which she rejects, make her feel unstable, especially since she has gaps in her memory from electro-shock therapy. Towner’s mother May never leaves the island where she harbors abused women and teaches them how to make lace, and her aunt Emma has brain damage from a history of abuse by her husband Cal.
In Salem again, Towner waits for news of Eva. She learns that one of the police officers, Rafferty, is sure that Cal had something to do with Eva’s disappearance as he has been threatening her and other members of her family.
Salem itself is almost a character with its witch-based tourist industry, and now Cal has formed a group of religious cultists who call themselves Calvinists and who taunt the witches and threaten them with damnation. It’s a bad place for Towner to be, and she is just deciding to leave again when Eva’s body turns up.
The Lace Reader is a wonderful book, layered with secrets, an exploration in the difference between perception and reality. With an atmospheric setting, characters to care about, and a compelling plot, the book is a real page-turner. The last few paragraphs made me re-evaluate everything I had read.