Turtle Valley by Gail Anderson-Dargatz

By Gail Anderson-Dargatz. Knopf Canada, 292 pp, $32, hardcover

It's aptly named, Turtle Valley: Gail Anderson-Dargatz's third novel starts slowly, and her characters' horizons are hemmed in by mountains of history and regret. Kat has returned to this thinly fictionalized Shuswap community to help her aged parents flee an impending forest fire, dragging her vexing stroke-victim husband, Ezra, and her annoying child, Jeremy, in her wake. She's also carrying a flickering torch for her former lover Jude, the hunky potter who lives across the road from Mom and Dad.

Things are hot, and they're going to get hotter: not only are flames preparing to rush down the hillside, but the family home is haunted by a spectral presence that keeps igniting the stove's four burners at the most inappropriate times. Oh, and some creepy old guy in a big black hat is circling the farm, fading in and out of the smoke like”¦well, like a ghost.

There's no shortage of plot here, and no shortage of tension. It's obvious from the start that some baleful family secret will soon come to light, obvious too that Kat and Jude are star-crossed lovers. But things are not just hot, they're sticky. Anderson-Dargatz's creeping plot gets bogged down in so much exposition that, halfway through, you're thoroughly tired of Kat and Jude and Ezra and the whole damned crew, no matter what dark surprises spill out of Grandma's carpetbag.

Then comes the firestorm. Hell breaks loose minutes after Kat's dad's cancer-ridden body is hauled off to the morgue: her mom's violent history is laid bare, Ezra glimpses Kat and Jude in a clinch, there's an eerie scene in an abandoned house, and all the while ash is falling and trees are bursting into columns of flame. For a few pages, Turtle Valley itself catches fire, in a breathless flare of this-can't-be-happening dread, until finally, inexorably, we're hooked. The inevitable denouement is disappointing, but it doesn't negate the fact that Anderson-Dargatz remains a master of magic realism whenever she cares to exercise that talent.