Vermont Writer Melanie Finn Pens a Novel of Everyday Horrors

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/3/2018 10:00:13 PM
Modified: 5/3/2018 10:00:25 PM

At first, it was supposed to be a thriller. But, thanks in part to a momentary encounter that has troubled her for years, Melanie Finn’s latest novel took a turn into more personal territory.

On a cross-country trip, Finn and her then-3-year-old daughters were staying in a seedy Oklahoma motel, where people were scuttling in and out of what Finn realized was a drug dealer’s room. There was one woman, visibly “tweeking” on methamphetamines, who looked at Finn and seemed to be trying to communicate something. Finn looked into the woman’s car, and saw a child about the age of hers, who “sat like a doll, no seatbelt, no expression. … I’ve been haunted by the child’s cold face ever since,” she writes in the press materials for the book.

She still wishes she had done something. She still is uncertain of what the woman was trying to say. But she kept returning to the idea that the woman has more in common with her — and with mothers everywhere — than might meet the eye, in that motherhood often entails the private struggle between “how we love our children and how we fail them.”

The Underneath is not exactly a thriller, but parts of it are pretty horrifying — in part because, as horrors go, they are unremarkable. Such horrors happen all the time, every day, both reflecting and perpetuating the broken systems from which they arose. Taking its cue from Finn’s own preoccupations with motherhood and social ills, The Underneath deals with tragedy and its rippling aftermath, and excavates the hows and whys of the pain we inflict on each other.

The Underneath is her third novel. Her previous novel, The Gloaming, was a New York Times Notable Book of 2016, and a finalist for the 2017 Vermont Book Award and for the Guardian’s “Not the Booker” Prize. Finn will debut The Underneath at Norwich Bookstore on May 16, with a reading and signing starting at 7 p.m.

Like The Gloaming, Finn’s new book has one foot set in the African continent, where Finn spent her childhood and returned to as an adult. She was born in Kenya and lived there until she was 11, and later lived in Tanzania: first as a journalist, then to help film the acclaimed wildlife documentary The Crimson Wing with her husband, Matt Aeberhard, then as co-founder of the grassroots Natron Healthcare Project. They moved back to the States when Finn was expecting her now-8-year-old twins, since it was a high-risk pregnancy (Finn was in her 40s, and had suffered previous miscarriages).

In The Underneath, the protagonist Kay Ward — like Finn, a former journalist — is haunted by the atrocities she witnessed, and the mistakes she made, while on the trail of the genocidal General Christmas and his army of child soldiers in Uganda. In the spirit of patching things back up with her husband, she and her family are renting an idyllic farmhouse in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont for the summer. Despite the bucolic backdrop, Kay finds herself at odds with the constraints of marriage and motherhood, and finds a new story to dig for: The story behind a disturbing message, scrawled onto the wall of the farmhouse’s crawlspace.

“When I was a journalist, I was probably not as serious about it as I should have been,” Finn said in a phone interview from her home in Kirby, Vt. that she described as “off-grid.” She loved that her freelance assignments took her around the world and thrust her into new experiences — visiting vineyards, learning to scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef, and so forth — but she avoided the grittier, more perilous reporting that Kay so single-mindedly pursues.

“I think there was a sense of self-preservation,” she said. “I saw what that kind of reporting did to other journalists.” She knew some who, after seeing so much violence, could not recalibrate to their former lives, and slid into alcoholism or depressions from which they did not emerge. And so Kay’s discomfort with playing the role of wife and mother are also part of a larger story about the infectious nature of pain.

“It’s difficult enough to make that switch to motherhood,” even without a past like Kay’s, Finn said. “It makes you feel irrelevant and unattractive. And isolated. It is isolating, making lunches and driving kids to school and so on.”

During the conversation, Finn was also whipping up potato pancakes for dinner. At one point, she paused and turned her head away from the phone receiver.

“Excuse me. Could you not do that right here? Could you go do that over there? Thank you, love,” she said, before coming back on. “Sorry about that.”

In The Underneath, Finn expresses Kay’s difficult readjustment, in part, by writing the Vermont chapters in the third-person, and flashback-to-Uganda chapters in first-person, in italics. This creates an immediate, almost epistolary effect to Kay’s construction of memory, and also contributes to a complex narrative structure that pieces together multiple viewpoints and realities.

“It’s funny. I start out thinking that I’m going to write a simply structured book, then of course it quickly ends up becoming the most complicated structure I can possibly think of. I have no idea why,” she laughed. Then she mused: “I like to look at things from different angles. … Also, when you write with ‘I’ you have to be more focused on what that experience is like at that moment in time. You don’t have the distance of that objective voice. You can’t cheat.”

The shifting perspectives also highlight the contrast between Kay’s tough and dishonest past, and the farmstand-studded veneer of her family’s summer location. But, as Kay reads every morning in the Caledonian Record, the area is suffuse with abused and abandoned children, domestic violence and drugs.

Many of these harsh realities unfold through the viewpoint of Ben, a secondary protagonist and survivor of the foster care system who grew up surrounded by addiction. Mirroring Finn’s own encounter with the mother at the motel, Ben notices a child sitting in the car while his mother is picking up:

Because she was looking at him, an energy passed between them, some kind of human code — and he would remember this with absolute clarity, like a particular color, even though it was happening at a micro level, below sound and light and even thought, down in the earth of the mind. She was telling him something, willing him to look, look. … With what was left of her smacked-out brain, with some remnant of her mother’s love, she’d left him in the car, her child, her asset. She wasn’t selling him. Yet. She wasn’t that far down. Yet. The ‘yet’ was out there, she could perhaps glimpse it in the distance like a dark tower, and therein the dark walls lay all the terrible things she was capable of.

Though Finn vividly captures the ugliness of opioid addiction and its profound impact on children, “I was very careful to not write from the addict’s point of view. I don’t feel that I could possibly explain ... that vise-like grip of it,” she said. “Instead I wrote more from that perspective of the outsider,” who bears witness to and is implicated in that grip. This is a role Finn knows much better: Her father was an alcoholic who died in his 50s of liver cirrhosis. Two former boyfriends of hers, both of whom suffered from addiction, have now died.

“Every day when we open the paper, there’s another story about it,” she said. “So there is a strong personal element.”

But, while the author and her characters do share some similar experiences, Finn said these parallels are only a starting point.

“There are seeds of autobiography for any writer. Then as you progress, you take that and you explode it out and explore these other lives that you’ll never have,” she said. “You want to explore the part of you that it isn’t.”

In the meantime, the potato pancakes were starting to burn.

Melanie Finn will debut The Underneath at Norwich Bookstore on May 16, with a reading and signing to start at 7 p.m. To reserve seats, which is recommended due to limited spacing, call the bookstore at 802-649-1114.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at or 603-727-3216.

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