Rick Harsch’s new novel, “Voices After Evelyn,” takes us to La Crosse, Wis., site of a real-life unsolved mystery. In the early 1950s, teenager Evelyn Hartley disappeared, leaving behind a trail of blood that ultimately was nothing more than a dead end for authorities. Harsch’s cast of characters reacts to or comments on the event from a host of vantage points--temporal, geographical, and, arguably, mystical.
Harsch, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is much enamored of wordplay, elusive allusions, and nonlinear storytelling. Nevertheless, “Voice After Evelyn” is — despite the inclusion of a Greek chorus, a witch, and a mass murderer from another time and another continent—fairly straightforward compared to some of the author’s previous work, including “The Driftless Trilogy.”
Readers may well be troubled by Harsch’s approach to female characters, all of whom are defined by their sexual rapacity and physical appearance. This doesn’t read like third-wave feminism projected back to the 1950s; rather, these characters—including a 15-year-old girl sexually involved with a man twice her age—operate primarily as Sirens (Harsch goes so far as to apply the term to one particularly desirable woman). Meanwhile, Evelyn Hartley is much less of a presence than one might expect given the book’s title—though perhaps her frequent absence from the text is meant to reflect her physical absence after her disappearance.
Harsch is not a writer deeply concerned with plot, and as a result there are moments when the story is hard to follow. Even so, “Voices After Evelyn” highlights the voice of an unusual writer whose books are always unconventional and always intriguing.