The Epilogue of August, the captivating debut crime mystery by Jennifer Milder, unwraps the title character’s secrets like a succession of nesting boxes. It demonstrates the truth William Faulkner captured when he said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Janus is a middle-aged woman living in Brooklyn when she receives a phone call she’s awaited for years. Her mother, August, is dying in the oceanfront town of Seaville, North Carolina. Bad timing, of course. The Thanksgiving holiday looms. Janus has no desire or, initially, no intention to go to her prickly mother’s bedside, but there’s no one else. She goes. The competing pulls of duty and self-preservation are palpable here. In a way, it’s curiosity that wins out.
The name Janus (mostly called Jan in the book) is a perfect choice for the main character. Looking backward and gradually revealing the layers of her mother’s and her own lives—eventually, even her grandmother’s—and looking ahead to her mother’s death is exactly what occupies Jan in this novel.
Jan has indelible, unhappy memories of her chaotic early years living with her single mom in camps and communes. August has painful memories too, especially of the murder of a pair of sisters that took place in the town one long-ago summer. Nelson McCready, a young Black man, was tried and acquitted of one of the killings and never brought to trial for the other. Because technically the case is still open, he can’t leave, sentenced to live in a community where everyone believes him guilty.
As August’s fragile health declines, Jan seeks out friends from her own past and that of her mother and grandmother. You may anticipate a few of her discoveries, but author Milder has significant twists in store. To Jan, the journey she’s on is personal, but as her mother’s story is gradually revealed, she comes closer and closer to uncovering the secrets behind the long-ago murders.
All told, this is a complex, layered portrait of mother and daughter, and even though family dramas are not usually my cup of tea, here the characters are completely, heart-breakingly believable. Coupled with an accomplished writing style, that realism makes the story immersive and deeply engaging. The story packs in so much, it’s hard to believe that the present-day action takes place over the course of only about a week.
The book appears to be self-published, and a commercial publisher might have suggested different formatting choices. Some readers may be put off by the book’s 579 pages, but that number is misleading. The way the pages are laid out there are fewer words per page than in a conventional book and, trust me, it moves along rapidly. This is a truly remarkable debut, and I look forward to more from this author.