Wilmington author Emily Colin mixed romance and the supernatural in her 2012 debut novel, “The Memory Thief.” She does much the same in her new follow-up, “The Dream Keeper’s Daughter.”
Colin’s new heroine, Isabel Griffin, has suffered more than her share of loss. Her mother disappeared into the woods when Isabel was just 16. Then, her boyfriend Max vanished without a trace just after Isabel told him she was pregnant. (It’s not what you think.)
Isabel has bounced back, raising her 7-year-old daughter, Finn, practically alone and building an academic career as an archaeologist with the College of Charleston. All seems well until Isabel takes a phone call while on a dig on the Caribbean island of Barbados. The voice is clearly Max’s, leaving her a brief, cryptic message (“Keep her safe”). Yet the phone company insists that the number he used is disconnected.
Even spookier: Near the end of the dig, an excavation of a plantation slave house yields a silver chain and what appears to be a dragonfly figure, unlike anything ever seen in the 1700s or 1800s. Isabel, however, recognizes it immediately – her father made that dragonfly pendant for her mother, Jill, shortly before Jill seemingly dematerialized.
What’s going on? Without giving too many spoilers, the plot involves “thin places,” spots where the boundary between the living and the dead can be crossed. Somehow, all of this is bound up with a bloody, real-life slave rebellion that broke out on Barbados on Easter night in 1816.
Complicating matters further is the fact that Finn is demonstrating powers – she can tell what you’re thinking before you say anything. Before long, Finn is having long conversations with the invisible Dad she’s never seen, and her drawings of him look exactly like Max.
And then there’s Ryan, an embittered graphic designer and comic artist who’s been carrying a torch for Isabel for years, even though Isabel somehow hasn’t noticed. (This is a romance, so there has to be a triangle.) Ryan’s acted as a surrogate father to Finn, with only a hug and a handshake for his troubles. Now, he wants Isabel to forget all this craziness and move with him to New York, where a job’s waiting for him at Marvel.
Isabel, of course, has no intention of doing so.
Colin, a former staffer at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham who now lives in Wilmington, is taking a risk, employing plot devices very close to those used in such best sellers as “The Time Traveler’s Wife” and the “Outlander” series. (Ballantine seems to be marketing “The Dream Keeper’s Daughter” to Diana Gabaldon fans.) She does, however, manage to put her unique imprint on her material, marking out her own territory. Isabel, for example, is the antithesis of the typical quivering romance heroine. She’s a black belt in judo and some of her associates compare her to Lara Croft. Then again, it does take her about three chapters to recover from Max’s phone call.
While the modern-day chapters sometimes meander like a mid-week soap opera episode, the chapters set in 1816 Barbados prove especially fine, taut with tension and masterful in detail. Colin did her homework – the picture of slave life is especially sobering, and while plantations here grew rice and naval stores, unlike the sugar cane of Barbados, the details are probably not all that different.
Colin can dip into Romance Speak, and the not-quite-explicit sex scenes are of the bodice-heaving variety. When she’s good, though, she’s very good, a storyteller of hypnotic power.
“The Dream Keeper’s Daughter.”
By Emily Colin
Ballantine Books, 482 pages
Meet the author
Emily Colin will be at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham (where she once worked) at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 17. (If you go, be sure to check out the dragonfly necklace she’s wearing. It was made by metalsmith Mitzy Jonkheer from Colin’s design and plays an important role in the book.)