Ruth Francisco

"Good Morning, Darkness"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark SEP 16, 2004)

“What was it with these people? Couldn’t they leave her alone? Scott was obsessed with her; her boss looked at her like a horny ape; and her landlord was acting like some possessive Neapolitan godfather, as if her affairs were any of his business. Who was next? She thought her self-defense instructor might have a crush on her. And what about the Mexican she’d caught spying? Even Vivian, wanting to know her every move. Didn’t these people have lives? And now some crazed girlfriend threatening her?”

Good Morning, Darkness by Ruth Francisco

While fishing on Venice Beach, a Mexican man finds an arm in the sand. Even though he is legal, he doesn’t report it; he waits for someone else to discover it. The hand on the arm is wearing an engagement ring, though tempted to take it he knows that action would only lead to trouble for him. That evening after he tells his wife and children the story of the arm, he’s trying to imagine the owner when he suddenly realizes whose arm it must be.

Meanwhile we get the back story on how it is that Laura Finnegan goes missing. Basically it starts with a very bad dream in which her boyfriend Scott is murdering her. Unable to shake the feeling from the dream, she decides to end the relationship at the very moment that he’s ready to propose to her. Scott becomes even more obsessed with Laura; stalking her to the point that she gets help from her self-defense instructor(who is also a police detective), to put a restraining order on him. Meanwhile, Laura is doing all sorts of new activities, varying her routine to shake the feeling that Scott is watching her. Then a co-worker fixes her up with a blind date, which sends Scott over the edge. He decides to plea with Laura for one more chance and she rejects him.

Next we know, Laura is missing.

The title of the book is derived from a quote from a 12th-century English philosopher and theologian in which he cites the paradox that occurs in the Lord being all light with no darkness any place in him, but this unapproachable light produces our darkness. The essence of Laura is that she is unapproachable. And in being so, she produces darkness in all that get near her. The Mexican clearly feels a possessive attraction to Laura, deciding to watch for her safety long before the arm is found on the beach. The self-defense instructor/police detective is very bothered after Laura misses three classes. His quest to find her blinds him to all else; his wife and children leave him, he neglects his job duties. He, himself, can’t believe he’s so in love with a white woman. Of course, it is this obsessive behavior that propels him to solve the mystery --to find the history behind the ring, to scrape together hair samples from her apartment for a DNA sample, to investigate her workplace and interview her boss. Even the Mexican eventually breaks from his non-involvement and goes to the police planning to file a missing persons report, offering to help with the investigation.

Meanwhile, Scott, who has clearly found the darkness in loving Laura, is dealing with other issues. His mother and sister are ganging up on him asking him to return his grandmother’s ring. But he can’t, he slipped it on Laura’s finger and now she’s gone. Scott’s life gets very complicated while trying to cover for Laura’s absence.

There is definitely more here than just a missing person / murder mystery. Given the opening quote and with the chapters named for the Canonical hours, the author intends religious devotion to be a key part of the story. I’m still trying to piece together the overall message. Perhaps the clue is when Detective Brooks seeks help from his priest, who advises, “The soul will not stand being neglected, Reggie. Your desire for this woman is your soul demanding attention. If you don’t do work on your soul, it pops up symptomatically, in loss of meaning, obsessions, and adultery.” I’m not sure whether Laura's inherit gracefulness is meant to be lordly, or if she is the devil testing the soul, or if there any difference.

I really liked Francisco’s first novel, the idea of a Death Maiden and subsequent portrayal was very convincing. Thus when there were parts of that novel that weren’t exactly credible, I defended the author by working out the plausibility behind the actions. After reading this new one, I’ve decided that it is Francisco’s style – she expects us to be able to put the pieces in place ourselves. Unfortunately, some will just call this writing style uneven or even manipulative. For example, the Mexican tells his side of the story directly to us in first person, while the rest is told in third person. Naturally, I questioned this choice from the beginning, but like a good reader, assumed it had a purpose. I figured it out after I got to the surprise ending. It’s clever because we are blinded by his point of view, but any reader who isn’t giving the book a careful read will just feel like the author cheated him or her. I know I was irritated at first, but that’s why I like to write these reviews, it forces me to think a bit longer on a book. So, as I say, it is clever, but it also maybe a bit unfair of the author.

I’ll leave it up to you as to whether you want to buy this book in hardcover. If you are on a tight budget, I do think that its worth borrowing from the library, picking it up on the bargain table or waiting for the paperback version. While you are at it, pick up Confessions of a Deathmaiden, though also a bit uneven, it is well worth the read. Both books have a way of sticking with you and thus making me quite curious as to what Francisco will produce next.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 4 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Good Morning, Darkness at TWBookmark

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"Confessions of a Deathmaiden"

(reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer JUL 3, 2004)

"There comes a time when a Santa Ana wind howls hot off the desert, gathering dust and toxic gases in her arms, when she slams into a cold north current over the Santa Ynez Mountains and spills her load against the horizon. At twilight, as the red sky darkens to vermilion, and as luminous white cicatrices streak across the heavens, you have, for a moment, the sense of being in a living, breathing organ."

Confessions of a Deathmaiden by Ruth Francisco

Frances Oliver is a deathmaiden... she practices the art of easing a person into death, much the way a midwife helps a baby come into life. She does this in a way that is much more like a mystical shaman than a grief councilor... she is able to read energies, to help people tie up loose ends, to smooth the passage into the next world...basically, to help them let go. The first step is to take the hand of the person and place it to her forehead, and what she sees will tell her if they are ready.

When she finds herself by the bed of young Tomás, who is in a coma caused by extreme head trauma, she knows two things...that the reaons that he’s not coming out of his coma is because he’s terrified, and, that it is not his time to die. Innocently, she looks around the room, and noticing the dearth of toys decides that the first step is to bring the boy some cheery things that will help heal his spirit. When she returns, he's dead, and an ambulance arrives soon after to bear Tomás to the operating table; not to save his life, but to take his body apart to save others. Realizing that her profession has been used as a cover up for murder, Frances goes on a journey to find out why... a journey that some very powerful people are willing to do anything to stop.

This is not a particularly comforting book. The plot involves the concept of transplants not as a way to save hundreds of lives, but a way to exploit whatever natural resources that can be found in order to make the most money. When she lists how much replacement parts -- knee joints, hearts, livers -- go for, you don’t find yourself wondering if doctors and hospitals would really use such underhanded means to get these parts, but when are we going to find out about it on the news. It's that believable.

Francisco contrasts two things here...she uses the ancient Mayan/Aztec practice of human sacrifice and blood sacrifice as a comparison point against what the doctors and companies are doing. The imagery of the comparison is woven throughout the book, made more stark when, during one beautifully rendered trip to Mexico, Frances goes to meet the Tarascan people, who may be Tomás’ only surviving family. I loved the trip to Mexico because she captured the beauty of the place while not blinking an eye at the poverty. I could taste the food, smell the gardenias, yet I was always aware of the danger, not just from the people trying to capture/kill Frances, but from the Guerillas and army, who constantly fight each other and don’t seem to care who is caught in between.

A lot of what I told you might seem a bit far fetched, but it is written so well, so detailed, everything placed together perfectly, that it all makes excellent sense. She has a knack for making things seem real...Her society of deathmaidens is so perfectly realized that I found myself believing in it to the point where I was tempted to look it up on Google.

There is also a pensive feel about the book that makes the imagery more real. Frances has a lot of regrets...she defines herself well, in one scene, when she’s looking at the landscape where she found the Tarascans. “I sense an aching emptiness in the landscape, something like disappointment, something like unfulfilled potential, something like a beautiful woman, aging, alone, living half in this world, half in her mind, not deranged, but managing to survive despite excruciating loneliness. I see something of myself.” In the pensiveness, in the way she looks at the world around her, we see a lot of truths...and like her, we see something of ourselves.

This is a highly original debut novel. Though technially it is a medical thriller, it covers a diverse range of concepts including spirituality in death, the health-care system, a bit on DNA, and medicine for profit. An interesting read if you are looking for something a bit different.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 9 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Confessions of a Death Maiden at TW Bookmark

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About the Author:

ruth FranciscoRuth Francisco is a graduate of Swarthmore College, she studied voice and drama in New York City and then moved to Los Angeles to work in the film industry. She currently lives in L.A. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014