It's kind of reductive to call John Keeble's novel The Shadows of Owls an eco-thriller. That's what it's been billed as, but anyone expecting this to fit neatly on a shelf next to John Grisham will be perplexed. The elements are there, for sure, but Keeble's imagination is too poetic, wandering and engrossing to be confined to a thriller's format. It makes Shadows of Owls a fantastic and simultaneously frustrating read.
Our hero is Dr. Katherine McDuff DeShazer, who we meet while she's driving her Subaru to her Idaho Panhandle home on a cold night in November 2000. Keeble writes, "The tree trunks were black and they stuttered in the periphery of Kate's vision as she passed, while the snow that bedecked the limbs was a dancing white cloud above the black stems."
Kate is a name often given to tough, smart women (I don't really have a problem with this, ahem) and DeShazer is no exception. She's a career-oriented ichthyologist, and a wife and mother of three, devoted to both spheres of her life. Kate has gone into independent research after working for corporations that, to her dismay, have had shady dealings and involvement in oil exploration. But along the way, she's collected research that could threaten a corporation's plans for an oil pipeline in the Chukchi Sea north of Alaska, and it's this data that will prove to get her and her family into a whole lot of trouble.
Over the course of more than 400 pages, car wrecks, a kidnapping, crazed white supremacists, mysterious Siberian cities, giant ships in Arctic seas, a man named "U," shootings and explosions all play a role in the drama. Plus, there's attaché cases of secret documents, a must-have for any thriller or mystery.
It's all very coolit just takes so damn long to get there. We're not introduced to the oil conglomerate villains until page 100; the real action of the book doesn't begin until more than halfway through.
This is what makes Shadows of Owls maddeningKeeble veers off into dream states, fascinating tangents and odd extended metaphors just as plot points heat up. The thing is, he does it masterfully, forcing the reader to choose between lingering to absorb every page or skimming along to keep up with the main thread. Keeble can't help but pause to give even bit players a piece of memorable personality, like here, with Charles Lamb, a trucker: "A little man who liked tall women and big rigs and engaged in endless small-time dirty dealings in an effort to trim the world down to his size."
Keeble's imagination swoops from the diving of shearwater birds to the machinations of accounting to a beautiful woman and the "burning hoop of her electricity." It's unusual to read an author who's as informed by biology and geography as the give-and-take of human behavior.
At one point, Kate's husband, Jack, is at their son's basketball game, nervous because Kate is running late. The chapter exactingly details the game play, the small-town sense of community in northern Idaho and the topography and geology of the Cabinet Mountains and Lake Pend Oreille outside. Jack contemplates the mindset of the area: "An old snake was still lodged in the people, many of whom lived in mountain pockets, a diamondback, a living, commonly held relic of the hazard, brutality, and opportunism, and also of the common earthbound competence with mountain weather, floods, hunting, fishing, with machines, and with raising the kids, keeping things safe, and putting up stores against hard winters." Jack gets along with these people, but also is careful to avoid political discussions with them; it perfectly sums up what it's like to swing lefty in a red state.
And so, Shadows of Owls is less a thriller and, at heart, a meticulously recorded document of the life and land in the Idaho Panhandle and British Columbia. Keeble's love for the areahe's a professor at Eastern Washington University and holds dual citizenshipis contagious. Kate and her family are likable people. It's engaging and, toward the end, nail-biting to read as they tumble toward uncertain fates and a disquieting conclusion.
Shadows of Owls might be maddening, but it's entirely worth it. Keeble has created a parallel universe that will likely stay with the reader for a long time.
John Keeble reads from Shadows of Owls at Shakespeare and Co. Thu., Oct. 24, at 7 PM.