It’s clear, from the portentous flashbacks, that the two women — Amma and Brittany — are each concealing past traumas and what can best be described as unresolved interpersonal issues. But they are not the only sketchy characters.
Also pulling up to Meroe: Jake and Eliza, a hot couple with a boat full of booze and several continents’ worth of secrets, and Robbie, who has answered the casting call for White Trash Guy. He was the sort of customer at her waitress job, Lux thinks, who “ordered Pabst Blue Ribbon and had eyes that slid over our bare legs like slime.” (Indeed, he drinks beer for breakfast.)
But although Robbie vindictively smashes their radios, thus delaying their departure, he might not even be the most dangerous visitor, or the one with the most twisted back story. “Accidents happen so easily out here,” one of the women says. “A million different ways to die.”
The ending feels like that great moment in “Body Heat” when the camera swoops down to reveal the identity of the last person standing at the end of all the mayhem. Who will it be?
THE OVERNIGHT GUEST (Park Row, 335 pp., $28.99) is a bland title for Heather Gudenkauf’s unbearably gripping new novel. It refers to a little boy whom Wylie Lark finds nearly frozen as a storm rages outside the rented house where she is writing her latest book, about a terrible crime that took place there two decades earlier. (Suspend your disbelief about the inadvisability of holing up in a remote former crime scene during a punishing Iowa winter, especially when you have rendered your cellphone inoperable by dropping it into an icy puddle.)
Wylie’s battles against the weather and other, even worse, adversities form one part of the narrative. The second describes the lead-up to and the aftermath of the past crime, which traumatized a community and left a couple dead, their young daughter shot in a cornfield and two other people missing. The third strand, which will be familiar to anyone who has read Emma Donoghue’s “Room,” is about a woman and her child kept prisoner by a man who arrives intermittently to terrorize them. Each narrative thread is fully realized, wholly absorbing and almost painfully suspenseful. The reader will form theories about how they fit together, and will be only partially right. Having ostensibly revealed the recipe for the elaborate cake she intends to bake, Gudenkauf introduces a secret ingredient late in the game that changes everything. The ending is a bit too pat after so much tension, but the journey is mesmerizing.