Every now and then you come across a story that creeps up on you, and before you know it you’re gripped, furiously turning the pages to reach the end. Then the end arrives, and you release a breath of air you didn’t know you were holding in. With the book closed, you smile and wonder how you’re going to come to terms with the depth you’ve just encountered. My experience with L. F. Falconer’s latest offering was that; it kept me up long past my bedtime.
“A Debt of Survival” is one of those books that speaks to you as you read it. Layered and complicated and yet a breeze to read, this supernatural suspense is complexly human. Falconer is a writer who knows not only how to layer a story, but also to layer her characters. Don Lattimore is a hero in every sense of the word. He’s a war veteran, a stand-up friend, a law-abiding sheriff, a devoted father, and a committed husband, despite his wife’s frigidity. But he is also flawed, steeped in trauma, and imperfect. Characters are Falconer’s specialty. She’ll make you fall in love with hers, and you’ll have a hard time letting them go. Don, with all his defects, is the quiet hero we all carry around inside of us. You’ll root for him from beginning to end.
But Falconer is also skilled at suspense, and adept with action. She knows how to pace her reader, and simmer his blood before bringing it to a boil. Her writing is fluid, but also impeccable. Take this passage for instance, “Something dark surged forth, a surreal squeal drowning out the pervasive silence. Lattimore’s face imploded in crippling star-spangled agony. A cry not unlike a bawling calf tore from his throat.” The writer easily meshes man and beast, primal and wild.
The tight prose spins a clean yet intricate plot. Don Lattimore is pursued by a gaki, a second degree demon from another dimension, who has returned for reasons well detailed and explained. The only survivor of his platoon in the Korean war, Don is haunted by the horrors he witnessed and the trauma he endured. His memories fester and eat away at him, not only mentally but also in a very physical way. It is most telling when he recalls the voice he heard on the battlefield all those years ago, saying, “When spoiled is the moon, our blood will rise. I will come for you.” Did I mention the story takes place in 1969?
And the smells, oh the smells Falconer evokes. For anyone who may have had the misfortune of smelling death—whether animal or man—knows she has hit home with this. Smell is something that latches on, climbs inside, and never lets go, as is the case for the smells Don Lattimore is subjected to time and again. Falconer’s writing is atmospheric and titillates the senses of both her characters and readers. She’s a magician with description, too.
But more to the point, Falconer does an incredible job of weaving her story with experiences of war trauma. Though not an expert on trauma literature, I have studied it somewhat and commend Falconer for considering the often scarred and memoiristic mindset of a soldier back from the battlefield. The way Don Lattimore deals with his wartime experience, though fitting for the story itself, is believable for the reader, too. It’s honest and fragile, and depicts brokenness in minute and sharp ways. Don’s memory of his time in Korea reminds me of the compelling and honest portraits drawn in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” which is a stunning piece of literature in and of itself.
And this is what is so great about fiction. Stories like this one not only entertain, but may also offer the chance for those of us who haven’t experienced the realities of war to gain some insight, and perhaps foster greater compassion for those who have. I don’t know if Falconer would agree with me, but alongside being a compelling read, “A Debt of Survival” is a metaphor for post-traumatic stress disorder. Anyone who has experienced any kind of trauma will say it is physical, something that roots itself down into the body. Falconer has written a story that exemplifies this, and shows us our experiences not only make us who we are, but manifest themselves inside of us, changing us in the process.
TITLE: A Debt of Survival
AUTHOR: L.F. Falconer
PUBLISHER: Outskirts Press, Inc.