The Lonely Witness by William Boyle

lonely witnessI haven’t read many books where the main character shared my first name. This may seem trivial, but it set me up to looking for similarities between myself and the protagonist in William Boyle’s The Lonely Witness. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much I could cling to. She was Catholic and I *used* to be Catholic. She liked Chinese food and so do I. She was also very lonely.  That was the extent of it.

Amy–the main character, not me–was a former party girl who worked in bars and had a tempestuous relationship with a girl who was possibly even more wild than she. When her girlfriend moved across the country, Amy withdrew from her former friends, stopped frequenting her former haunts, and gave up her work in bars.

She started doing volunteer work for the nearby church by taking communion to shut-ins. While visiting one of her regulars, she encountered Vincent, whose odd and menacing behavior woke up something in her. She had to know what he was up to, ostensibly to make sure the old lady she was taking care of would’t come to harm at his hands, but also because she craved the feeling of adrenaline coursing through her system. When tailing him through the streets of Brooklyn, she witnessed something that shook her up and destroyed the quiet life she had built for herself.

priest holding hostia
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I’m torn about The Lonely Witness. I enjoyed some passages and found others tedious. This was due to the precarious balance created by the character’s decision-making.

The main problem with this book is that Amy does many things that make the reader cringe. Most of us would recognize her choices as bad ones and just wouldn’t do those things–and seeing her do them can be infuriating and make it hard for us to empathize.

At the same time, her perversity is one of the intriguing things about this book. We are wise enough not to do some of the things she does, but we’re not above watching the fall-out. The suspense of the book comes from wondering if she can extract herself from all of the messes she has made.

photography of street during rainy day
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For me, what made the book worth reading was the excellent way William Boyle handled the setting. He made Brooklyn come to life. He painted the scene so vividly that I could see the old churches, bodegas, run-down restaurants, apartment buildings and funeral homes. I knew the sounds and smells, and felt the energy of the people treading its streets. It wasn’t a vacation to the Caribbean, but it was excellent armchair traveling.

Defending Jacob by William Landay

Defending JacobThe main character’s situation filled me with dread. I cannot fathom how it might feel to have a child of your own accused of murder. I don’t know if I could have been as steadfast in my defense of my child as Andy Barber, or if I would have handled it more like his wife. My dreadful fascination with this kept me turning the pages. I had to know the truth! What really happened?

While it was a page-turner, it was also frustrating at times with sudden transitions between different periods of time and different voices. It was written as Andy Barber’s memoir, so all events are in the past; however, it consists of one thread telling the tale from start to finish juxtaposed with Andy’s testimony later on. The voice changes from an in-the-moment reaction to a considered and rehearsed telling before the grand jury to the reflective voice of the author. It’s not poorly done, but it feels like the literary version of driving over a dirt road filled with pot holes and stones. The transitions can be jarring.