Rating: 4.25 stars
It was supposed to be a simple drive home for Barrett and his young daughter, Hilary. But she was restless. Kept saying there was something, a large black bird, on the roof of the car. Then they crashed and when Barrett came to, his daughter was missing. Not dead, not run away, but gone. In desperation and half out of his mind, Barrett turns to the man he rejected, whose heart he had broken because he could not accept his own sexuality, Anson.
Anson hears and sees things not of this earth. Like his Aunt Cyn, those that dwell in the in between or beyond are visible, are tangible, and oh so very real. When he answers Barrett’s call for help, he is plunged into emotional turmoil. Anson is still reeling from Barrett’s rejection. A Barrett that scoffed when Anson told him of his special abilities. Now Barrett wants him to use that very same gift to help him find his daughter and bring her back. Anson wants to hang up on Barrett. But the heart wants what the heart wants and he wants Barrett. Beyond all logic, beyond all reason, and in face of known heartache and despair, he still wants and desires him. So Anson agrees because as his Aunt Cyn says “If you can see, then you must help…” Even if the cost is beyond all earthly concerns.
Earthly Concerns has so many levels at which to appreciate it. I love how Axelson builds our knowledge of Anson without resorting to physical descriptions of his person. Anson uses ice trays and sleeps with his windows open, letting the night air and sounds reach him. Bookshelves sit next to his bed along with crystal from his Aunt Cyn. With each descriptive paintstroke, slowly a picture of Anson appears, that of a man living simply and in tune with his surroundings with all their layers. For Anson, those layers go beyond our realities and into the darkness beyond.
Insects play a major role here, from the mundane to harbingers of the supernatural. It is the sound of a beetle banging against the screen that first awakens Anson, and then the featherly brushing of antennae, real or imagined, against his shin. You know the feeling. We have all had them. We feel the hair on our skin move ever so slightly. And we react violently running our hands over the offending section of skin, to no avail, not sure if anything was there to begin with. The pages are full of such imagery. Broken carapaces and the fluttering of moths wings, all portend the darkness that is coming.
And come it does, riding on vague shadows, crawling under the loose skin of wallpaper, flying on the wings of black crows, crawling from the broken cavity of a tree. Xavier leaves you to fill in the dark spaces with your own imagination as Anson and Barrett seek to uncover the truth behind the accident and Hilary’s fate.
I love the way Axelson plays with words as he builds his story. With lyrical sentences and imagery both beautiful and foreboding, we are alternately filled with anticipation and dread as the end draws near. I found the sexual interludes, past and present, less successful as they break up the mood he has so carefully built. They seem jarring, and out of character, but perhaps that is his point. I also found Barrett something of an enigma. I could not get a handle on him, other than as a bereft father and emotionally unavailable man. That inability made it hard for me to care what happens to him even as his daughter, Hilary, commands our empathy. By the end of the story, that impression had not changed for me.
I think it is the ending that most readers will have issues with. Axelson leaves us with a glimpse into second chances without telling us exactly how all the characters arrived at that path and what their final destination is. I find that it is in keeping with the story. Fulfilling or terribly frustrating? That will depend upon the reader. If you must actually see a bird to know it’s there, then you will go away dissatisfied. But if you can accept the existence of a bird by seeing a shadow or hearing its wings beat against the air, then you will love this. I think I hear the cawing of a crow and the skittering of a beetle nearby.
Cover: The simplicity of the cover works perfectly with the story. I would wish for a little more darkness in the clouds but love the image of the tree, a major player in the story.