A character in Jamie Harrison’s latest literary crime novel observes, “Everyone [has] a core of hell and doubt and sorrow.” But the story’s star, Polly, discovers a brighter perspective.
In 2002, 42-year-old Polly has recovered physically from a recent bike accident, but she still suffers periods of confusion. When Polly’s children’s favorite babysitter, Ariel, goes missing on a kayak trip, the incident triggers a flood of jarring memories in Polly’s fragmented mind. Her “spells” toggle the narrative between July 2002 and the summer of 1968, a structure that suggests cyclical rather than linear time, as she exists fluidly in both eras at once.
Polly spends part of her childhood with her great-grandparents Dee and Papa, whose backgrounds in archeology, myth and art create a chaotic but loving household. Also living with Papa and Dee are Rita, Polly’s parents’ friend whose husband dies in the Vietnam War, and Rita’s son, Edmund. Eight-year-olds Polly and Edmund explore the landscape together, avoiding “the witch” and eavesdropping on adult conversations. This stimulating and permissive upbringing makes for a lively narrative.
Since timelines and events are murky to Polly, sensations dominate the narrative, from the smells and tastes of Dee’s exotic meals to sights from around New York, Michigan and Montana, as well as memories of physical closeness and warmth. The text is idiosyncratic, composed of lists and phrases, a mosaic of impressions from past and present. After Ariel disappears, Polly follows suspicious, incongruous images of sexual predators and water deaths, leading her to a truth that her family is finally ready to face together.
Reading The Center of Everything is like traveling further and further into a dream, spiraling around fragments toward a point of love and wonder. It’s a redemptive and hopeful novel guided by earthy, reliable men, women and children who inspire and encourage.