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With the assurance and grace of her acclaimed novel The Gloaming—which earned her comparisons to Patricia Highsmith—Melanie Finn returns with a precisely layered and tense new literary thriller.
The Underneath follows Kay Ward, a former journalist struggling with the constraints of motherhood. Along with her husband and two children, she rents a quaint Vermont farmhouse for the summer. The idea is to disconnect from their work-based lifestyle—that had her doggedly pursuing a genocidal leader of child soldiers known as General Christmas, even through Kay's pregnancy and the birth of their second child—in an effort to repair their shaky marriage.
It isn't long before Kay's husband is called away and she discovers a mysterious crawlspace in the rental with unsettling writing etched into the wall. Alongside some of the house's other curiosities and local sleuthing, Kay is led to believe that something terrible may have happened to the home's owners.
Kay's investigation leads her to a local logger, Ben Comeau, a man beset with his own complicated and violent past. A product of the foster system and life-long resident of the Northeast Kingdom, Ben struggles to overcome his situation, and to help an abused child whose addict mother is too incapacitated to care about the boy's plight.
The Underneath is an intelligent and considerate exploration of violence—both personal and social—and whether violence may ever be justified.
The Adroit Journal: "How I Wrote The Underneath" (Oct. 29, 2018)
Read Melanie Finn's essay about how the novel The Underneath came to be written.
Scroll to bottom for Goodreads reviews.
"Finn does an excellent job of keeping the reader guessing, and the tension in the narrative always comes across as organic, never manipulative. The Underneath is an excellent thriller, and Finn has a gift for prose that's hard-boiled but not clichéd. Perhaps most important, her characters are true to life... There's much to admire about The Underneath, and Finn's third novel proves that she's deeply original, a writer who's not content with rehashing old tropes that have become overly familiar in some thrillers."
—Michael Schaub, Star Tribune
"One of the best novels I've read in recent memory."
—Mitch Wertlieb, Vermont Public Radio, 'Year In Review: VPR News Staff Share The Stories That Stuck With Them In 2018'
"A musk of sex and menace soaks three narrative strands, expertly braided... Finn writes with a phrasing flare on par with Lauren Goff’s... Her curiosity and dread drive the novel and move her toward a terrifying denouement... Finn puts her readers on the knife’s edge."
—Kirkus Reviews, starred
The Underneath delves into the dark side of the Northeast Kingdom."
—Vermont Public Radio, listen to the full interview
"The follow up to Finn's smash hit, The Gloaming, The Underneath is a thriller you probably shouldn't read if you live, uh, alone. Kay Ward, a former war journalist, attempts to settle into a calmer life out in the wilds of Vermont. But when her husband is called away on business and she discovers a crawl space underneath their home, Kay becomes worried that something, something horrible, happened to the previous tenants."
—Bustle, '13 Books From Indie Publishers To Look Forward To In 2018'
"Kay is spending the summer with her family in Vermont when she becomes obsessed with needing to discover who owns the house they’re renting and where the owners are now, until she puts this need for the truth before her own family. In flashbacks we learn about her time as a journalist in Uganda, and what choices she made then about truth versus family. All the way through Finn lets us think the worst and then deftly illuminates the thought as our own."
—Claire Fuller, CrimeReads "recommended novels"
"[The Underneath] offers glimpses of redemption, hope, and at every turn, natural beauty... a gripping, detailed, satisfying read, a hard, unsparing look at human nature."
—Katharine Coldiron, sinkhole mag (read the full beautiful review here)
"The book [has] a peculiarly absorbing momentum."
—The Sunday Times Crime Club (UK)
"The Underneath is an extraordinary and challenging book, and one that I could not put down."
—Lizzie, Promoting Crime Fiction
—Amy Lilly, Seven Days
"A complex, layered, and exceedingly well-written novel dealing with, among other things, the opioid crisis and how it’s effecting rural New England, and a women’s role in marriage vs. a man’s... [Finn] has written a gem."
—Maggie Smith, Book Review of The Underneath
"Interspersed with the narrative that follows Kay's Vermont investigations are passages in italics from her former life as a tough investigative reporter in war-torn Uganda. The passages serve a double function: as flashbacks, they follow Kay's memories of her former life as she copes with her maternal duties as chauffeur, unappreciated cook, and house cleaner; thematically, they implicitly compare the cruelty, abuse and poverty in opioid-touched Vermont with the destitution, sadism, and corruption as the war crimes in Uganda."
—Laura C. Stevenson, One Minute Reviews of Books by Vermont Authors
"Finn has written a fine piece of fiction. It will make you concerned, worried, and anxious, but we read at least in part to escape our everyday world. Once you step into Finn's Northeast Kingdom, a return trip to your daily and predictable life looks pretty attractive. The tension upon re-opening this book each time is one of the beauties of reading, so read Finn and enjoy."
—Michael F. Epstein, Bennington Banner
"Filled with the terror of everyday violence, this is a mystery in the making. It’s filled with bits and pieces of the lives of a variety of characters, all thrown together in this stew of a story. From journalistic realities to motherhood and the day-to-dayness of life, we’re led on a journey into the life of Kay Ward who’s soon to learn that the house she is calling home may have had a violent past that can’t be ignored. But is it gone?"
—Linda Bond at Auntie's Books, Spokane, WA
"The narrative tension comes with significant psychological depth... Melanie Finn delivers the right kind of uncomfortable in exploring our complicity in what’s wrong with the world. An intelligent novel about a mother’s love and hatred, and the violence lurking below the surface of so many lives."
—Anne Goodwin, Annecdotal (Read the full review of The Underneath on Annecdotal)
"The minute you open this book, you will be sucked into a liminal space, one that is usually only accessible in the small dark hours of the morning, when the world is asleep and the only light comes from the television shining bluish on the wall. It opens with Kay Ward: increasingly estranged from her husband and children and on the edge of something, she doesn't know what. When she discovers a crawlspace in the isolated farmhouse her family is renting, she keeps it to herself. It's a secret she nurses until she decides to investigate, but her questions have consequences and propel her into the path of people she'd be better off without. Finn's newest is strange and compelling, a haunting reminder that it's not just the violence on the surface we need fear, it's what's underneath."
—Lauren Peugh at Powell's Books, Portland, OR
"Finn’s tense and atmospheric novel (following The Gloaming) flashes back and forth between two periods in the life of journalist Kay Ward... Finn’s dark and gripping meditation depicts how violence can warp a person’s character, and whether, having experienced it, there is any coming back."
"Taking its cue from Finn’s own preoccupations with motherhood and social ills, The Underneath deals with tragedy and its rippling aftermath, and excavates the hows and whys of the pain we inflict on each other... Finn vividly captures the ugliness of opioid addiction and its profound impact on children."
—EmmaJean Holley, Valley News
BOOK CLUB & READER GUIDE: Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Kay’s daring and independent life as a war reporter has given way to a claustrophobic domesticity. While her husband, Michael, is away in foreign parts, Kay is home with dishes, her children and a book she’s starting to realize will never be written. On p. 100, she wonders: “Did other women feel like this about their children—the sharp rush of resentment?” How does Kay’s ambivalence play into her increasing obsession with the farm house and the fate of its occupants?
2. Kay has been obsessed with stories before. She takes a risky journey, while pregnant, to meet with a notorious African warlord, General Christmas. How did she make you feel about her?
3. Why does Ben offer to help Shevaunne and her son, Jake? Is he clear, himself, about his motivations?
4. On p. 130, Kay begins to question her own version of her narrative. She shifts from a version of the boy-with-the-bucket story that shows her in a favorable light to one that reveals her as callous. What does this tell us about her? Knowing this, how do you feel about her? She also alters the narrative of story of her rescue by General Christmas in his helicopter on pages 280–282. Why is she doing this? And which version do you believe is the truth?
5. When Kay finally meets General Christmas, they discuss the nature of evil. On p 208, when he challenges her that evil is circumstantial, she refutes him, saying she could never commit the kind of atrocities he has. He replies: “I’m disappointed in your lack of imagination, Kay. You want to understand? Then imagine. You are in a different world to my world, Kay, a gated community, a real passport. You don’t know, you haven’t the faintest idea what you would do in my situation. Your innocence is just a failure of imagination.” To what extent to you agree with him? Or her? Is evil intrinsic or circumstantial? Could any one of us become a General Christmas, given the right (or wrong) circumstances?
6. Ben encountered neglect and terrible cruelty as child. Kay reads about such cases in the local Vermont paper, The Caledonian Record. Unlike General Christmas, who is a remote figure, the perpetrators Ben encounters—and Kay reads about—are members of small communities. They are familiar. Circle back to question 5.
7. Kay, herself, crosses a line. On page 181, she verbally abuses Freya. How does she react? Did you find this scene believable? Why/not?
8. Ben’s history with Frank emerges, and we glimpse the tyranny of Ammon. How is Ammon like General Christmas?
9. Vermont has a highly romanticized image—red barns, grazing cows, fall colors. But the author shows us a different “underneath” reality of drug abuse, poverty and violence. How is the landscape a metaphor for motherhood?
10. On page 314, in the midst of a tense and potentially fatal scene, Ben notes, “A dozen small birds flock across the water—he can’t be sure from here, but perhaps they are cedar waxwings. They move the air with their wings, and he feels the current all the way here.” In this moment, Ben is facing a life-or-death choice. What does he choose, and why? And what part do the birds play in his decision?
Melanie Finn, author of Away From You (2004), The Gloaming (2016), The Underneath (2018), and The Hare (2021), was born and raised in Kenya and the US. The Gloaming was a New York Times Notable Book of 2016, a finalist for the Vermont Book Award and The Guardian’s “Not the Booker” Prize. The writer and producer of the DisneyNature wildlife epic Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos, she is also the co-founder and director of the Tanzanian-based charity Natron Healthcare. She and her family live on a remote hill in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.
Enjoy a sneak peek of select pages from The Underneath! (Use the "full screen" option at bottom right to enlarge the pages):
LIST PRICE: $16.99
PRINT ISBN: 9781953387103
DIGITAL ISBN: 9781937512705
RELEASE DATE: 11/16/2021
SIZE: 5.5" x 7.5"
Printed in Canada by Friesens, with the following environmental statement:
LIST PRICE: $26.00
PRINT ISBN: 9781937512699
DIGITAL ISBN: 9781937512705
RELEASE DATE: 5/15/2018
SIZE: 5.5" x 7.5"
Printed in Canada by Marquis, with the following environmental statement:
*Inside printed on Enviro 100% post-consumer EcoLogo certified paper, processed chlorine free and manufactured using biogas energy.
*FSC certified paper (inside and cover).