Penguin, 2007 (first published by Michael Joseph 2006)
Matt Selekis is a doctor at a large hospital in Salt Lake City. He specialises in endocrine and oncological surgery, and is something of a (lower case s) saint, having spent some years working in Eritrea after graduating from medical school, before returning home. One night, a terminally ill, elderly patient begs Matt to end his pain, and Matt obliges –without alerting the on-call oncologist first because Matt knows the man will be drunk. Despite having been asked earlier by the patient, Mr Zoy, and his wife, to undertake this course if Mr Zoy’s suffering became too great to bear, Matt finds himself and his hospital subject to an ethical lawsuit.
Matt has a self-questioning nature, and reacts to these events by losing much of his fragile self-confidence. He’s always been an outsider from the hospital’s medical establishment, disapproving of the money it makes from performing (as Matt sees it) unnecessary weight-loss surgeries, and in addition he is not one of the LDS (Latter Day Saints with a capital S) who are dominant in this city. Nevertheless he is blissfully happily married to Denise, and they have a young son. Both Matt and Denise have elderly fathers: Clem, Denise’s father, has been a leading LDS figure, now in a self-chosen nursing facility and in Matt’s view dominating his daughter (who has left the Mormon church); Hirsh, Matt’s father, lives in what was the family’s vacation house in the wilds of the Rockies. Matt and Denise visit their respective fathers often.
Elizabeth (formerly Liz) Rigbey is masterful at conveying slow menace. Someone is following Matt in a red car: he is convinced it is the Zoys’ son, but never sees him through the darkened windows of his car so cannot know for sure. The book is told from the point of view of Matt, who is clearly an unreliable narrator as he tries to remember key events from his childhood summers in the holiday house. His mother Hilly was a concert pianist who has died of cancer many years previously, but Matt has many conflicting memories about her last summer and in particular his family’s relationship with their neighbours, the Minellis. Mr Minelli, a real-estate agent, was a bully but seemed to have a hold over Hilly. He died from gunshot wounds, but who was responsible? Matt was best friends with Minelli’s youngest son, Steve, but has not seen him for 26 years since that last summer in the mountains when the tragedy occurred. In the wake of the Zoys’ accusations, Steve suddenly re-enters Matt’s life, both at work and as a photographer of unsettling and questionable art. Steve is obsessed with his father’s death and persists in asking Matt to find out more from his own father, Hirsch. Matt and his father have a pretty silent relationship (Hirsch was a doctor and Matt has followed in his footsteps), and Matt is reluctant to confront the older man.
As well as all this ancient history, Matt himself seems to have secrets related to Denise, his wife’s, first marriage. How did Weslake, her first husband, die, and why is he a constant presence in Matt’s marriage? How is his business – selling a presumed fake slimming mixture – tied up with Matt’s family life and Denise’s father? Did Matt know Denise or Weslake while Weslake was alive?
The last part of this book is about a highly symbolic hunting trip that Matt and Hirsch undertake, in which it seems that many of these secrets may be revealed. That is, if the wild elements do not first defeat the pair, as Hirsch is pretty old and Matt inexperienced at wilderness survival.
There are many aspects of The Hunting Season that are extremely good. It’s a very well written book and particularly strong on the location both in Salt Lake City and in the surrounding mountains. The hospital, Matt’s friends, the LDS and its role in society, and the old locals who live near Hirsch are all portrayed with conviction. The plot is too drawn-out for my taste: the book is 500 pages long and I think that the air of creepy menace and false memories that provide the suspense can’t quite justify that length. Denise, Matt’s wife, is something of an insubstantial yet idealised figure, and though Hilly comes across in sharp relief (though she is only present in the novel in half-glimpsed fragments), Hirsch is slightly unconvincing as he switches from being a universally respected retired family doctor to insisting on an extremely demanding, survivalist and dangerous journey with his son, which seems out of character. The Hunting Season is a very absorbing read about a likeable if rather incurious protagonist (he never looks anything up to answer his doubts and insecurities). By the end of the novel, several mysteries are solved, but one is left slightly in the air, wondering how things will turn out for the characters after the last page has been turned. I'm very glad I read this book, and if the author writes another one (I hope she will), I shall certainly read it.
When she was still called Liz Rigbey, this author wrote an original and distinctive debut called Total Eclipse, about an astronomer. If you can get hold of it, I highly recommend it as one of the novels I’ve read that really stands out in my mind. Her second novel, Summertime, is very good but like The Hunting Season, does not quite match the first. All three books are very well written indeed, with a haunting, involving quality that really conveys what it is like under the skin of some of the characters.
I can't find other (proper) reviews of The Hunting Season so here is the book on Amazon UK with a couple of brief reader comments.
My alphabet post about Liz Rigbey (which led me to discover the existence of The Hunting Season).
Interview with the author about her previous novel, Summertime, at the publisher's (Penguin) website.
Article by the author about The Hunting Season and its lack of Russian elements.