BookBrowse Reviews Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan

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Long Black Veil

by Jennifer Finney Boylan

Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan X
Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Apr 2017, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2018, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Tomp

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A novel about a woman whose family and identity are threatened by secrets from her past.

"This was a long time ago, before my first death, and none of us now are the people we were then. Instead we are ghosts: two of us dead, a third unrecognizable, a fourth suspected of murder."

These enigmatic opening lines for Long Black Veil hint at the mystery to come, as well as one of the themes woven through this multifaceted novel. The deftly told story doesn't fit into one specific box. It's a murder mystery, as well as an exploration of transgender identity. Told from multiple timelines and characters' point of view, as well as shifting between various geographic locations in the Northeast, it is also a thoughtful character study, contrasting who the characters were in their twenties against who they become thirty-five years later.

The opening scene sets in motion the defining moment for six friends, recently graduated from college, and takes place the day after the wedding of two of them: brash, bold, Wailer and gentle, thoughtful (and overweight) Casey. The remaining members of the group include Maisie, a musician and former girlfriend of wealthy and privileged Tripper; artist Rachel; and sensitive Quentin, who all have confusing relationships with one another. Tagging along with the core group are Benny, Maisie's ten-year-old brother, and Herr Krystal, a former teacher, who may or may not have a questionable interest in Benny. As the book opens, after spending the day at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the group decides to walk to the ruins of Eastern State Penitentiary (see 'Beyond the Book'), and then to explore the boarded-up grounds. Early on, we realize one member of the party will disappear during this fated excursion, but the plot twists and turns before we know who turns out to be the corpse mentioned in the second chapter.

Interspersed with the events that unfold during that summer night in 1980, are the stories of the remaining characters, now middle-aged and living separate lives. Adding to the complexity of this mystery, the central narrator is Judith, whose relationship to the original group is revealed within the first half.

Judith is in her mid-fifties, married, with a son, and living a content life in Maine. She worries about the future for her teenage son, Falcon, hoping he will choose college instead of following his father into the family's septic-tank business. Falcon's closest friend is cheerful Caeden who has recently undergone gender-reassignment with the support and acceptance of family and friends. Judith's peaceful life is set into emotional turmoil when she hears the news that the skeleton of the person who disappeared in 1980 has been discovered, leading to one of the friends being accused of murder. Suddenly, she is forced to face the fallout of choices made in her late twenties. Consequences of secrets is a theme well-explored throughout the novel.

Although the murder mystery is central to the plot, I found Judith's character struggles to be compelling, thought-provoking and, as someone of a similar age, authentic. Just as adolescence is a time to shift from childhood into adulthood, middle age is also a significant milestone and a cusp between the past and future. Judith is facing her own mortality as she looks back at her youth and self-evolution. As much as young adulthood feels like a time of endless opportunity, middle age can be a reminder to make the most of one's limited time ahead. It's when choices must be made with the firm understanding that our personal decisions impact the lives of loved ones. I'd call this story a coming of—middle—age story.

The murder mystery wraps up clearly by the end, although I was far more invested in following Judith's journey of self-examination and the bittersweet love story with her long-time husband. Long Black Veil will appeal to readers who enjoy complex plots and exploring contemporary issues of identity and the role of gender; as well as the idea of self-reinvention. After all, "the struggle to find a connection between the people we have been and the people we become is not some crazy drama unique to people like me," as Judith says, "It's all of us."

Reviewed by Sarah Tomp

This review was originally published in May 2017, and has been updated for the January 2018 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  Eastern State Penitentiary

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