Ghost Country, Sara Paretsky, Delacorte Press, 1998, 389 pp
Sara Paretsky's ninth novel is one of only two which do not feature private investigator V I Warshawski. It is set in Chicago and focuses on homeless women and females raised by oppressive adults.
Mara and Harriet Stonds are half sisters (same mother, different fathers), who lost their mother soon after Mara's birth and have been raised in luxury by their grandfather. He and his housekeeper are horrid people who control these girls by a perverted sort of behavior modification. Harriet has become a successful lawyer but has no emotions. Mara is a moody, rebellious teenager.
Dr Stonds, the grandfather, is chief neurosurgeon and head of the psychiatric department at a large Chicago hospital. He believes in medication over psychoanalytic therapy and favors the use of psych wards as containment and punishment for unruly, abnormal people, including his granddaughter Mara, though he carefully excludes those with no health insurance. All of this is so Sara Paretsky.
Hector, a resident at Midwest Hospital, who prefers therapy over medication, gets himself assigned to run a clinic at a homeless shelter and becomes embroiled in a volatile scene which eventually includes Mara, Harriet, Dr Stonds, an alcoholic opera diva, and a bevy of mentally ill homeless women.
It all leads to drama, disaster and deliverance. Mara and Harriet discover the truth about their mother and grandfather. The various bad guys get what is coming to them. The strange and psychic Starr--homeless, wild, bigger than life--is like an avenging goddess.
This is a big story, ambitious and sprawling. The writing is not great but Paretsky knows how to create tension and I was turning the pages, completely involved with the characters and their fates. The author's best characters were the homeless women: she made them real, demonstrating how they are invisible yet feared by society. Behind the imagery of the city's underbelly is a deeper layer of mythical spirituality which could have been developed more but possibly at the expense of the book's pace as a thriller.
As much as I like her detective novels and V I Warshawski as a heroine, I hope that Sara Paretsky writes more novels outside the series. From Ghost Country, I got the idea that a deep well of learning and a vast understanding of human nature lies yet untapped in her psyche. Through her novels she is working out important issues about American society and I will read anything she writes.
(Ghost Country is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)