Jon Bronson is an outsider, a loner except for his friendship with Chloe. When he is abducted, the world moves on. When Jon returns, four years later, he has changed in a way he can’t explain, with the only clue being an old paperback of the HP Lovecraft classic The Dunwich Horror.
Providence is a study in how to write a novel in which every single character is either entirely passive or utterly irrelevant to the plot. As Jon learns to ‘use’ his powers (ie. to stand near someone and not engage while they have a heart attack and die) he leaves a string of corpses behind him. These corpses are duly investigated by Detective ‘Eggs’ DeBenedictus, who is sure they are linked. Eggs is dogged by an unbelieving wife and unsympathetic superior officer, and has the added baggage of an autistic son, and cancer for good measure. In this cheerful and happy sub-plot, Eggs follows up on several of the victims, interviews Chloe once and, otherwise, has no major impact on the story. If it didn’t acutely fit in with the ethos of the book it would be irritating. As it is, it’s about the only part of the story in which anything happens.
As annoying as this is, it is nothing compared to the roles of the characters we don’t follow, primarily Chloe’s eventual husband, Carrig Birkus, and Eggs’ wife. Both of these start out as very definite characters but completely change as soon as the plot requires it. Carrig, a small-town bully and Jon’s nemesis, becomes a clean-cut, college-educated financier the moment Jon needs his heart broken via Chloe. Never fear, he turns back into a small town bully right when it’s needed in the final act. Similarly, Egg’s wife constantly scolds him for wasting his time investigating seemingly-unrelated heart attacks right up until it is no longer helpful, at which point she becomes Eggs’ greatest ally, driving him places and helping out. All of this is about as subtle as a well-aimed half-brick.
Then again, perhaps it is deliberate. A cornerstone of the work of Lovecraft was his philosophy that humans had little agency, no hope of self-determination in a universe populated by the likes of the Elder Gods, Cthulhu, Shuggoths and the like. Caroline Kepnes has captured this intimately in Providence, a book where none of the characters display any self-will whatsoever. Jon makes it his life’s work to track down his abductor, but after six years all this has amounted to is phoning a professor’s office and being told by his secretary that he’s out. Chloe, in love with Jon but in lust with the town bully, pines for him but never attempts anything more. Jon can’t approach Chloe or he’ll suck the life out of her. Why he can’t ring, text or email her to explain his behaviour is more of a mystery.
The book is, in a way, the ultimate expression of Lovecraft’s worldview. Jon has the ability to suck the life out of anyone he’s physically close to. So does Providence.
Reviewed by D C White
Rating out of 10: 4
Distributed by: Simon & Schuster Australia
Released: July 2018
RRP: $32.99 paperback, $9.99 eBook