Since We Fell is not one of Dennis Lehane’s better novels. Like all his work it’s compulsively readable, there was never a point when I didn’t want to turn the page. But it’s most certainly a novel of two halves, where the first half, tonally and in terms of content, exists in a separate reality to the rest of the novel.
The plot goes something like this. Rachel is a broadcast journalist who is sent to Haiti following the countries catastrophic earthquake in 2010. Embedded in the country Rachel witnesses anarchy and lawlessness where women and young girls are prey to marauding men. At one point Rachel tries to intervene which doesn’t end well for the Haitian girl she was hoping to save. On return to America – reluctantly I might add – she finds herself on the outer with her network and then out of a job when she has a mental breakdown on-air. Rachel becomes a shut-in, frightened to venture out of her house. And while her husband, Brian, is loving and sympathetic Rachel is even beginning to doubt whether he can be trusted.
The first half dealing with Rachel’s search for her biological father (a subplot that loses steam at the halfway mark), her evolution as a journalist, her experience in Haiti and her eventual breakdown is fantastic stuff. Lehane’s depiction of Rachel, her refusal to ignore or just observe injustice and her post traumatic stress, is believable and sympathetic. He also nails the experience of suffering a panic attack*:
It started with a tickle in the center of her chest. The tickle quickly became a piston. Her mouth would turn Saharan. The piston would transform into the sparrow, imprisoned and panicked. It would flap its wings – whomph, whomph, whomph, whomph – in the hollowed-out core of her, and sweat would sluice down the sides of her neck and pop on her forehead. Breathing would feel like a luxury with an expiration date.
That first half is so good that my mental Goodreads – as distinct from the one on the interwebs – had penciled in Since We Fell for a five-star rating. But as the second half kicks into gear what was a story about a woman dealing with PTSD becomes a convoluted pot boiler involving a dead husband and a gold mine in Papua New Guinea. To be fair Brian’s death comes as no surprise, given Rachel shoots him on the first page of the book (in one of those annoying prologues that foreshadows events to come). I should have been tipped off** that shenanigans would, eventually, ensue, but I was so caught up in Rachel’s story that I trusted Lehane to integrate this moment of violence seamlessly into her character arc. Not so much. Rachel goes from a strong woman dealing as best she can with significant mental health issue to a noir heroine running away from psychotic bad-guys as she tries to piece together what’s going on. Lehane makes an attempt to marry together these two Rachel’s with on-the-nose memories of the girl killed in Haiti and the awful sentiment that spying on her husband and escaping from gun wielding killers has cured her of her PTSD (or at least her agoraphobia). It falls flatter than a poorly baked soufflé.
Reading Since We Fell makes me wonder whether Lehane believed he couldn’t get away with a serious novel about PTSD, that to meet the needs of his fans he had to inject some noir into the narrative. This does feel like a book that doesn’t have the full courage of its convictions, which – as a long time devotee of Lehane’s work – is something I never expected to say about one of his books.
* Based on my experience, obviously.
** Having now looked at the cover that should have been a tip-off as well.