An author is God in her story’s world. Whatever she says, goes. Yet that power only lasts as long as a given novel is being written; once it’s in readers’ hands, the ending is fixed and the characters’ fates are set in stone. But Carolyn Parkhurst’s compelling new mystery begins with the narrator, acclaimed author Octavia Frost, flying to New York to deliver a manuscript that strikes a blow against that dynamic. Frost has rewritten the endings of her seven published novels and collected the revised final chapters in a book she calls The Nobodies Album. Characters who previously died are now saved. Roles are reversed, cruel consequences melt away, and others are substituted. Is it fair to pretend that stories are infinitely malleable?
Like Parkhurst’s devastating first novel, The Dogs Of Babel, this is a tortured meditation on loss. Frost winds up facing the harsh distinction between her power as an author and her powerlessness as a mother when she learns that her son Milo, lead singer of a popular rock band, has been arrested for his girlfriend’s murder. Both Octavia and Milo have spent their lives dealing with the death of the father and sister of their family, and with Octavia’s transmutation of that tragedy into material for her art. Children tend to be lost in Octavia Frost novels, and Milo has been estranged from his mother ever since he read in one of those books that “they were exactly the wrong two to die.” Interspersed with the original endings and Nobodies Album revisions of Frost’s books (including, most movingly, the unfinished work she never published) is the mother’s unfolding journey to reconnect with her accused son and discover some truth in his media-hounded life.
All of Parkhurst’s novels fairly burst with plot, and The Nobodies Album is no exception. Especially toward its conclusion, a summary could render the book as a conventional murder mystery, complete with clues, revelations, and multiple suspects. But few authors are as adept at infusing page-turning storylines with emotional depth, both tragic and redemptive. Each book-within-a-book, paired with its revised ending, packs its own resonating punch. And while Octavia contemplates how she will turn her famous son’s murder charge into the memoir her publisher now demands—realizing that authors are compelled to transmute their lives into fiction, like it or not—Parkhurst questions whether any story is ever over, and who has the power to reopen it.