Alternating between a teenage girl Lily and Emily, a woman caring for her ailing parents in present day New York, Susan Scutti’s novel FENCE SICKNESS begins with emotionally engaging moments and strong characters. Lily gets diagnosed with ADHD and is having problems in school, musing about complex coming-of-age feelings and searching for answers about her dead father. Emily visits her mother and dying father in New Jersey, where she reunites with Vincent, her uncompromising and complicated neighbor who’s returned from serving in Afghanistan.
A switch in perspective introduces us to Angelo Amato, a guard at an internment camp in the 1940s. He oversees German and Japanese prisoners trying to build a life for themselves in the harsh desert and mourns for his dead brother.
After Emily’s mom suffers a stroke back in the present, Emily essentially moves in and takes on care-taker duty for her dad, who in addition to Alzheimer’s is bed-ridden. We then discover that Emily’s father is Angelo Amato, as Emily reads to him his own memoirs called Fence Sickness in hopes of sparking his memories. Instead, she inadvertently uncovers family secrets and begins a quest for truth.
Meanwhile, teenage Lily meets Gunnar, a rebellious and smart boy who has a strange attraction to violence. Gunnar draws Lily into an increasingly paranoid world of crack-pot politics, conspiracy theories and a thirst to get his hands on real weapons. As their young romance deepens, Gunnar turns his dangerous ideas into reality.
Emily and Lily’s stories continue side by side. Emily has an affair with Vincent while dealing with the re-emergence of Geoff, an old flame, and Lily with Gunnar, while she realizes what it means to be a young woman with her own strong ideas and sense of the world apart from the uncaring way Gunnar views it. Amato’s story also runs throughout, told through his own writings and revealing the complex human relationships he formed in the internment camp where he served. But the stories never collide in any meaningful or fully dramatic way. In fact, they seem purposefully written to dance around one another. Though Emily, Lily and even Amato’s story grapple with death and difficult men, and the message about both the tragedy and triumph of human beings dealing with a violent world is clear, readers are left yearning for a larger conclusion, some page-shattering dramatic reveal that will tie together the impactful lives Scutti has invested us in.
Susan Scutti’s FENCE SICKNESS is engaging and quietly dramatic, full of poetic prose and gritty, real life details. It’s an in-depth, emotional examination of family ties, prejudice, generational tragedy and love that ultimately feels more like a series of connected vignettes than a cohesive novel.
~Royal Young for IndieReader