Book review: Death of the Black-Haired Girl, by Robert Stone

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 January, 2014, 3:47pm
UPDATED : Monday, 20 January, 2014, 5:30pm

Death of the Black-Haired Girl
by Robert Stone
Houghton Mifflin
4 stars

Michiko Kakutani

Robert Stone's fast-paced new novel does not take place in the hot, volatile places where many of his earlier characters seek adventure, oblivion or redemption. But what it does have in common with the rest of Stone's work is a fascination with the existential and religious yearnings of the human heart.

The ostensible plot of Death of the Black-Haired Girl is a simple, noirish tale of adultery gone awry: writer-professor Steven Brookman is cheating on his wife with one of his students, Maud Stack, a beautiful, black-haired girl; when Brookman learns his wife is pregnant, he attempts to break things off with Maud; a drunken Maud decides to confront Brookman at home, and, moments after an argument with him, is killed in a hit-and-run accident in front of his house.

Brookman is not the only suspect in Maud's death. There is also a mysterious and sinister man who was enraged by an incendiary article Maud wrote for the college paper, attacking anti-abortion protesters.

Like so many Stone characters, Brookman and Maud like to push the envelope; they enjoy the frisson of danger and are prone to equate heedlessness with freedom. Maud does not think about the fallout her article on abortion might have, and while Brookman knows he should know better, he allows himself to become involved in a passionate affair with the volatile Maud. Even before he breaks things off with her, he has intimations of the unforeseen consequences that their romance could have on his wife, daughter and their unborn child. After Maud's death, he will wonder what role the choices he has made in his life may have played in shaping the trajectory of her short life.

Even as Death of the Black-Haired Girl barrels along towards its melancholy conclusion, it explicates its characters' hope that life is not completely random - "people always want their suffering to mean something", as one character puts it - and their understanding that choices have moral consequences, and that innocents frequently are tangled and hurt in the crossfire.

The New York Times