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Monday, Oct. 22, 2012

Tarlach Debuts With Dark Age ‘Plaguewalker’

Milwaukee author delivers a stunning novel

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Years ago, when my then-girlfriend saw me reading yet another Joyce Carol Oates book, she fretted, “But she's so dark!”

“Hardly,” I countered. “At the end, some of these characters survive.”

For Oates fans, it's the artificially upbeat narratives with rote happy endings that truly depress, whereas even the “darkest” story lines—when done justice through artful prose—can affirm, uplift, inspire. In words from her novel We Were the Mulvaneys (that could serve as her credo), “I believe in uttering the truth, even if it hurts. Particularly if it hurts.”

Consider Milwaukeean Gemma Tarlach's stunning debut novel, Plaguewalker. By page 34, the narrator, Marcus, has tortured a confession out of a prisoner, beheaded a traumatized young mother and driven his only child to run away from home—and, for good measure, hurled her mother into a snowbank (“She is lucky I am not given to anger”). If Tarlach intends us to root for this guy, she has her work cut out for her!

She's up to the task. Moreover, her audacious choices—a fearsome executioner and torture expert as “hero,” and the Black Death as catalyst for his evolution and deliverance—pay off in an unexpectedly moving tale of atonement and reconciliation, redemption and salvation.

Tarlach's feel for time (the Dark Ages) and place (Germany) is authentic and evocative, her language crisp and poetic—and her characterization spot-on. Raised, motherless, by a tyrannical executioner and destined for that same profession, Marcus wears his position's stigma as heavily as the mask he may remove only in the privacy of his home. As a lad, he once approached a group of boys at play: “They broke and ran like deer before a wolf. Their [parents] had warned them…” Fittingly, Marcus considers his wolfhound, Hund, “a better friend than any I have known” and “worth 10 men, even 10 good men, a number I have yet to meet.”

The stoic Marcus never whines about his lot, yet he's not without feelings; he's in denial of them. Investigating the mutilation and murder of a girl who may prove to have been his runaway daughter, he reports, “Suddenly the cold pinches shut my throat. I cough to clear it, [then ask,] 'What did she look like?'” His repetition—while staring at his daughter's footprints—of the phrase “She has big feet for a girl” is no mere observation: It's a big man poignantly claiming his own flesh-and-blood. And when he finds Hund's corpse, it's surely not Marcus' head injury that sends a “trickle of tears” down this now-friendless man's masked cheek.

That last-mentioned scene kicks off the book's central chapter—and its turning point. For it's here, liberated by the Plague and its ravages, that Marcus buries his past (literally and figuratively), discards his mask (ditto) and sets out to locate his child: “Perhaps I have something left after all. I should go and find it.”

Not much later, a hard-packed snowball hits him in the eye: “I wipe away a tear of pain.” This time, he's right: The tear is not from sadness—yet it's predictive, marking the arrival of a bold little girl named Brenna who, without even trying, will teach our protagonist how to love and be loved. In the process, she'll win the reader's heart right along with Marcus’—and brighten this dark narrative.

Speaking of “the dark side”: When I recently commended Tarlach for the Marcus/Brenna relationship, she replied, “Marcus is Darth Vader, and Brenna [note similarity to “Gemma”] is me!” In girlhood, the author found herself drawn to the Dark Lord, secretly believing he had good in him—and that she could bring it out.

With Plaguewalker, an Oatesian saga of hard-won yet ultimately heartwarming “hurtful truths,” Tarlach has done just that—and a great deal more.

Tarlach will read from, answer questions about and sign copies of Plaguewalker at two free “Halloweekend” events. She'll be appearing solo 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 26, at Boswell Book Co., 2559 N. Downer Ave., and—full disclosure here—appearing with yours truly (reading from my Midwest Book Awards Silver Prize-winning collection Unforgettable: Harrowing Futures, Horrors, & [Dark] Humor) 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 27, at Wauwatosa Public Library, 7635 W. North Ave.

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