Cover image for Reprisal
Smith, Mitchell, 1935-
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Publication Information:
New York : Dutton, 1999.
Physical Description:
307 pages ; 24 cm
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Joanna Reed, a professor, wife, and mother, is also a survivor. She hones her body exploring deep, jagged caves under the earth, and clears her mind creating the poetry. for which she is acclaimed. Now the refuge from which she draws her strength and inspiration has just turned deadly.

On her family's summer retreat to Asconsett Island, a peaceful Massachusetts coastal town, Joanna loses her husband and her father in quick succession to accidents that defy explanation. Unable to convince the authorities of her suspicions of murder, and distraught over the deaths, Joanna lets down her guard. The young woman who comes into her life seems loyal and kind, and her friendship slowly brings Joanna back from the abyss. But it is no mere accident that this girl has appeared, and Joanna is by no means out of danger.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Joanna Reed, a professor and published poet, is seemingly a fragile woman, but she shows strength and determination when her husband and then her father are killed under what she considers mysterious circumstances. Dismissed by the local police of a Massachusetts coastal town where she and her husband have been vacationing, Joanna launches her own investigation but finds no clues to the deaths. Joanna is close to emotional collapse when her daughter, Rebecca, dies in an apparent suicide. When Rebecca's roommate, Charis, ministers to her, Joanna is grateful but wary of taking advantage of the young woman's generosity. Joanna eventually learns that Charis' generosity is actually possessiveness borne of a secret from Joanna's past. In the end, Joanna chooses to avenge the deaths, to right the wrong she's committed, and halt her own descent into madness. This is a beautifully written novel of madness and revenge. --Vanessa Bush

Publisher's Weekly Review

Quaint New England beaches and disorientingly vast, scary caves are among the effective settings used by Smith (Sacrifice) in this absorbing tale of memory, murder and long-postponed revenge. Smith's sixth novel offers much suspense but little mystery, since the villain is known from the outset: she's Charis Langenberg, sexually abused at age six, who has grown up to be, at 20-something, a full-time graduate student and sociopath. Charis has staged, only days apart, the "accidental" deaths on Asconsett Island of the father and grandfather of Rebecca Reed, her teenage summer-school roommate. Joanna Reed, the novel's heroine, is Rebecca's mom and also a poet. When she arrives at Asconsett Island to grieve, she has a hard time believing the deaths were accidents. How could her husband, a skilled seaman, have drowned? Could her elderly, obsessively cautious father have died accidentally in a cabin fire? After much suspicion and several flashbacks, Rebecca herself "falls" off a dormitory roof. When her death is ruled a suicide, Joanna suffers a minor breakdown and Charis returns to Asconsett to help her recover. Will Joanna figure out who is behind the deaths, and why? Smith's prose prowess and skill with psychology and landscape offset his sometimes jerky plotting. His credibly flawed, offbeat characters and vivid descriptionsÄparticularly of the underground caverns that Joanna, an avid spelunker, exploresÄwill keep readers deeply involved. But Joanna's incessant introspection can be wearying. Her understanding of what's really going on, when it finally arrives, seems forced and sudden, marring what would otherwise be the gripping underground climax to a novel that, while not Mitchell's best (that's probably Stone City), is a reliable page-turner. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One Joanna dreamed the ocean had brought Frank home, delivered him in a rush of breaking waves up the walk, so seawater thumped and foamed against the cottage door ... ran under and soaked the rag rug there.     She dreamed he stood up laughing on the stoop, dripping salt water, stomping squelching sneakers, and called to be let in.     Joanna dreamed she rose, went out into the hall and down the narrow stairs, trailing her fingers along white-painted pine paneling. Then, in the entranceway, saw the puddle spreading on the floor. Rag rug would be stained for sure with salt, she thought--and with that hesitation, woke, and lost her chance to open the door and let him in.     She lay in bed, rigid as if terrified, and felt an agony of strangling sorrow rising in her chest, so severe, so dire, it frightened her. It rose, stopped her breath, then exploded in a muffled howl. Rage and regret. After a while, she grew less noisy, and only wept into her pillow.     Finished, she sat up into late morning light, blew her nose on a Kleenex from the bedside table, and got up to pee and take her shower. For the past week, Frank's ashes scattered on the hill, she'd slept naked, without her usual T-shirt ... as if, she supposed, to lure him alive and home to her. Her body--a few years from forty, long, lean, and lightly Indian brown even in deep winters--still seemed sufficient to call a man home to her, even with the right breast gone ... replaced by a pale fading scar curving across and up to her armpit. Even with this brutal lack, this missing, surely a man must like the rest--a good body, muscled and smooth, matched by an almost Indian face, strong-nosed and high-cheekboned, its eyes the near black her grandmother's had been, darkened by Mohegan blood.     One of her poems--only one, "An Amazon"--had been written in comment on her breast, lost to cancer. Joanna traced the long, curved scar with a finger as she turned, rinsing ... chanting the poem over the shower's white sound. My right breast, sliced away and gone, Permitted the bow such a sweeter draw, That willing I whistled a tit so-long, Rode out to fight, and in slicing saw New freedoms for my sword arm's swing, In raids from our steppe to the ocean. I found the plus that minus can bring, With those pleasures of easier motion. Aren't one-breast women who can fight, Completer than weak two-titted ladies? For by war is darkness beaten to light, And bright heavens hammered from Hades.     Joanna lifted her long, soaked hair to rinse again, the shower spraying meager and barely warm, as if fresh water here on the island was shy in the presence of the ocean.     "`The plus that minus can bring ...'" But nothing had been won in losing Frank.     "Mom, I've registered for my courses, and I'm going to do the summer session. I really don't want to stay out here, and I don't know why you want to." Rebecca's round inelegant face--her father's face, and intended to be merry--still slightly pale with shock, blue eyes milky with pain and confusion. Too sudden and early a loss for her....     A conversation on Sand Hill, the long slopes of the hillside--duneside, really--furred with sea grass, tangles of sea grape. A conversation as they'd walked across and down to the cottage, the small bronze jar held empty in the crook of Joanna's arm. There hadn't been many at Frank's memorial on the mainland, at White River--the college's faculty scattered for the summer. Eric and Donna'd been there. Susan Thom--who, Joanna suspected, had been half in love with Frank for years--weeping in the chapel. Susan had gone out to soccer games innumerable; more of them than Joanna had.     Those, and maybe two dozen others ... the dean, the McCreedys, Dornmann from Math, and his improbable wife. Jerry Conner, and some summer-session students, graduate students who'd known Frank, played ball for him, sweated to his jokes and whistle.     Coach Reed.     Good-bye to Coach Reed in a fieldstone chapel--fake Norman, like all the old college buildings--but beautiful, cupped in green hills.     The fieldstone--streaked with karst limestone--had been Professor Budwing's clue years before, a geologist's notice of which ridge to search to find a possible cave. And he'd found it six years later, the only major limestone pit and multimile galleries in the state. A labyrinth of passages, pitches--and two duck-unders in the White River, running deep beneath its hills in the dark. A caver's dream--by far the largest, most extensive of the few big caverns discovered in New England.     Merle Budwing had been a notable caver, and his "Concave" a notable find. Budwing had confirmed it only a few months after Joanna joined the Midstate Grotto. Confirmed it past its narrow scrub-grown entrance--then, in only a few yards and not yet anchored, not yet rigged, he'd slid into a chute, thirty steep downslope feet of wet slime-clay.     Chris Leong and Terry Parsons had followed Budwing in, heard the sudden struggle as he slid down ... then suddenly no sound except a long descending shout, not really a scream. A shout that ran out of breath many silent seconds before a dull and distant sound of impact almost four hundred feet down.     It was a record pit for the state, for all New England--and one of the deepest in the country. A geological surprise, a TAG cave, a Tennessee Alabama Georgia-type limestone cave where none were supposed to be, thanks to Whitestone Ridge--a lone coral reef in a Laurasian sea, forty-two million years before--and the White River, that had sculpted it, hollowed and carved it all the ages afterward.     Joanna's first major caving with Midstate had been the body rescue. They'd anchored at Concave's mouth, and double-roped down the chute. Then the long pit rappel down four hundred feet of 7/16th Blue Water II, a slender spiderweb strand of rope vanishing into descending dark, silence, vastness.     Merle Budwing, cave-cool, damp and undisturbed, lay waiting for them on slide shale far, far below, alone except for small skeletons of animals who'd fallen his forty-story fall, but years or centuries or millennia before.     ... Professor Budwing's memorial had also been held in the college chapel. But that had been midterm, and the chapel crowded with faculty and students, and cavers from around the country.     For Frank, last week, only a few--thirty, forty people from summer session--sat in the pine pews, listening to Father Hayes's Episcopal and measured compliments.     Joanna's father, come from upstate, had sat at the back of the chapel, aged, bulky, noncommittal through the service. Louis Bernard hadn't been impressed by Frank. "A pleasant young man," he'd said to Joanna, the first time he'd met him. "--Is there anything more?" The "there" almost a "zere," a touch of Quebec still sounding from his childhood.... Her father always superior, a little snotty to Frank, rude even when Frank took the old man out two weeks ago--during a visit from hell--and let him fish off the BoPeep , mess her up with fish guts.     Only those few attended the memorial at White River--and none except Rebecca's roommate came back across the state and out to Asconsett Island afterward. Only the three of them to watch Frank Reed's ashes, and tiny white chips of his bones, go spilling, drifting on the wind of a breezy, bright summer afternoon. Good sailing weather.     "Rebecca, I have things I need to do." Mother and daughter in hillside--duneside--conversation, starting down a long path eroded in soft sliding sand. Both slipping a little as they stepped. Asconsett Township had been considering setting wooden staircases into Sand Hill, from the town on up to the ridge ... had been considering it for three hundred years.     "Mom--things to do out here?"     "That's right. Did you bring the albums?" Joanna, stepping down sideways, had had a vision of herself tripping, rolling down the long slope clutching the little bronze jar. Tumbling down the hill with Rebecca crying after her.     "Yes, I brought the albums. I went out to the house and got them, and all those old boxes of photographs from upstairs. We brought them out; they're still in the car."     "Good."     "That's really--I think it's really the worst thing you could do is go through all that, with Daddy ... Daddy just gone." The slope of sand shifting beneath their feet.     "I want them, Rebecca. I want to be able to look at them."     "Mom, you should be home. We don't know anybody out here. You just rented a summer cottage and that's it, and you need to be home. All our friends are there ... and somebody has to get the mail sometime. Francie's called."     "Rebecca, you had a chance to stay in the house instead of on campus. You chose the dorm as an independence thing--fine. So now there are two instructors in our house, paying us three months' summer rent.... If you were so worried about the house and the mail, you should have stayed there. It was your choice."     "Mom, I'm not worried about the house.... You could come back and stay with Lianne."     "Oh, wonderful. What a prospect, having the McCreedys for comfort. --And as far as the mail is concerned, you can pick it up. It's not too much to ask for you to drive out to the house.... When can you get your car?" The going had gotten easier, less steep. Tall sea grass grew in runs and bunches.     "It was the fuel pump. Mr. Lubeck said in a couple of days."     "Okay. Have him just charge it to us."     "All right. --And he said he was terribly sorry about Daddy."     "A nice man. --So it's not too much for you to drive out and get the mail from the renters."     "I'll go get it."     "--Because your father and I came out for the summer, and I ... I want to stay here a little while."     Walking down across the duneside ... two women having lost a man at sea. By no means the first for this little island's old whaling and fishing port. How many women in dark and heavy dresses had walked this sand and sea grass, had looked out over the paths down to steep streets of white clapboard houses, gray clapboard houses ... out to the small harbor's bay, and the Atlantic.     And each woman taken by surprise--after no matter how many years of apprehension. Still a sickening surprise, as if they'd never heard of drowning. As if their husband, their father, their son, was the first man ever to go out and drown in the sea.     "Mom, okay. I'd just like to know when you're planning on coming home." Rebecca's voice had risen slightly in pitch the past few days, become faintly childish. She'd stepped back a year or two, wounded ... and three days after the memorial had had to be driven over from college--the old Chevy in collapse--driven to Post Port and accompanied out to the island by her roommate, an older girl, a student picking up summer credits.     This girl--young woman--had waited for them at the bottom of the hill. Very quiet, and seemed to find Joanna interesting. Perhaps checking out widowhood, loss--though apparently already familiar with loss of another sort. "Awful abuse, really disgusting," Rebecca had said, "--when she was a little girl...."     "I'd just like to know how long."     "Rebecca, I don't know. I have some things to do out here."     "Well, do you want me to stay? I can stay."     "No, sweetheart. Go back and do your classes. Summer credits will give you an advantage for your sophomore year."     "I can stay."     "I don't need you. --I don't mean I don't need you; I mean not right now."     "... All right."     Relief in her voice. And it had seemed to Joanna they both wanted to be away from each other for a while. Have Frank to themselves in memory.     Two women, mother and daughter, walking down a summer sandhill through sunshine and blowing sea grass, the little bronze jar sun-warm under Joanna's arm. Below, the small island ferry, fresh-painted white and green, had come in. Tourists had been filing off it, walking down Strand Street.... And at the foot of the path, the waiting roommate--tall, pretty, her dark-blond hair coiled up in a French knot--had stood slender in a somber slate-gray long-skirted dress with a white collar. She'd been looking up at them, apparently observing sorrow.     Joanna soaped and rinsed, rinsed again in rusty water. She cupped her single breast, then put her right hand down to cover her vulva, held it, pressed it gently for comfort.... Still a woman. But not beautiful enough to call back the dead.     She turned off the water, stepped out of the stall, and stood drying herself on a towel that smelled of salt, a worn towel--one of the light-green ones, brought out for the summer. She thought, as she dried, that she should shave her legs.... Maybe tomorrow. And she'd be shaving them now, only so no woman would notice she needed to.     A poor reason to do it. A poor reason to do anything.     Joanna went into the bedroom, sorted through her top dresser drawer for panties and bra--its right cup filled with her foam prosthesis--and while she was doing that, called absolutely without thinking.     "Frank."     Hadn't even thought about it. It just came out.     But now that she realized, Joanna did it again, to hear the sound of it.     "Frank? ... Frank!"     Waited for an answer. Waited for a sound. As if she might be discovering one of the great secrets of the ages--a new thing, a thing no one had ever thought of before. To simply call the dead and force them to answer.     " Frank! " As if she were angry with him for not answering. That would make the calling stronger.... And knowing it was so sad, so foolish, she nevertheless couldn't stop calling and walked out of the bedroom and called down the stairs. "Frank?" Soft inquiry, in case soft calling was what was needed, after all.     She went naked down the stairs to the entrance hall, walked into the living room, and called his name. And since he hadn't answered, it meant he might answer, might be somewhere else in the house.     She was afraid to go outside into the sunshine. If she kept calling there, she thought she wouldn't be able to stop, but would walk down the front steps and out into the street and go on down the hill to town past the cottages and fishermen's houses. Naked and calling her husband until the police or firemen came. Or women came out of the houses and put a blanket around her.     It was a shock to realize how much she'd loved him. She'd known it, but not how much. And he was only a man, not terribly special. Not terribly special. It was that tenderness of his not being special that she had loved. And now she knew it freshly, as if she'd felt no sorrow before.     Joanna called once more, just in case, then went upstairs to get dressed. Copyright © 1999 Mitchell Smith. All rights reserved.