They Was Holdin’ Hands, By Venera Di Bella Barles, Arche Books, www.archebooks.com, Copyright 2005, ISBN: 1-59507-065-6, Hardcover, 226 pages, $26.99, Mystery/Literary
They Was Holdin’ Hands is an unusual, beautifully written novel which combines elements of mystery and literary fiction. The story begins when the protagonist, an aspiring writer named Carmela Valente, reads by chance an intriguing article on the Seattle Times about three old women who mysteriously died huddled together by a wood-burning stove in the kitchen of their rural farmhouse in the small mining community of Pine Grove Haven, PA. Carmela soon becomes obsessed by the incident, so much so that she decides to go to the mining town to investigate. The idea of writing a novel based on the incident propels her. Of course, the demure, reserved people of Pine Grove Haven aren’t exactly thrilled by her visit. The town holds dark secrets, secrets that parallel Carmela’s own disturbing childhood. As the secrets of the town and the mystery of the old women’s deaths are gradually revealed, so are Carmela’s deeply hidden memories. In this sense, this is a dark novel about self discovery and about the grim, and often contradictory, realities of human nature. The story is told in the first person through the view point of the protagonist, and the author uses a technique which is not common nowadays in fiction; the protagonist is never quoted in the dialogue, but instead she’s always paraphrased, as in this example: I confessed to him that I still didn’t know what it was I wanted, but I hoped I would know in a day or two. I asked him if he felt the deaths were accidental.
This technique brings a quiet, old-fashioned storytelling quality to the novel, reminiscent of 19th century novelists. There are other beautiful passages in the novel, some with lyrical yet simple, vivid images: I brushed away the snow from a concrete bench and sat down. The day was clear. No heavy, bleak clouds blocked the sun’s welcome gift. I watched as the melting rivulets of snow slid down the gravestones like tears. This is a novel that will please those readers of mystery who look beyond the usual commercial literature. The two interwoven storylines are deftly crafted and the dialogue sparkles with authenticity. The author has a flair for characterization. In sum, this is an excellently written novel and one I’m very pleased to have read.