“A Brief Lunacy,”By Cynthia Thayer, Algonquin Books; Hardcover, $22.95

Their young daughter Sylvie gathered rocks, bark, stones and bones from the woods to create her “village.” The village was laid out on the braided rug of their Maine cabin and Sylvie would play with it for hours, moving her people about the village with exaggerated care. Sometimes as a reader, you feel played with in the same manner. You can feel as if an author is simply moving characters about on the page. But authors like Cynthia Thayer can make you feel as if the characters she’s toying with are as real as your own family.

The family that Thayer so genuinely portrays in “A Brief Lunacy” is a retired couple, Jessie and Carl Jensen. They fill their days painting in the woods and trying not to worry about their grown daughter, Sylvie, institutionalized for schizophrenia.

As the book opens, they are painting Sylvie’s favorite tree. It was the tree she retreated to as a child and the tree that she returns to when she is home from the institution called Douglas House. As they paint, Jessie feels someone is in the woods with them. When they return to the house, the answering machine tells them that Sylvie has run away from Douglas House. Sylvie, Jessie thinks, is in the woods.

A knock at the door

When a knock comes late that same night, Jessie runs to the door, thinking it is her daughter coming in from the cold. Instead it is a young man named Jonah, a stranger asking for a phone and shelter. Jonah tells them he was camping in their woods when his tent and all its contents were mysteriously stolen. Carl is wary of the man, but with Jessie’s sympathy for him and with Jonah’s insinuation, Carl cannot turn him away. Jonah stays for dinner, then for a game of Scrabble and he spends the night.

Jessie and Carl rise the next morning to find Jonah changed. Instead of the odd, interesting young man from the night before, they find Jonah agitated and popping pills with his coffee. After breakfast, Jessie goes out to warm up the car so they can drive Jonah back to the road to find his car. When she comes back in the house, Jonah has a gun trained on Carl.

What follows is the telling of the “brief lunacy” of the next 12 hours as Carl and Jessie try to survive. Jonah makes them tell stories at gunpoint “to know them better.” Under this duress, Carl is forced to tell a story of his childhood, a story neither Jessie nor his children know. The story starts with a violin Jonah somehow knows is shut up in a closet of the cabin. German writing on the violin reads, “Property of the Nazi Party.”

Entwined stories

Carl’s story of that violin reveals a time of lunacy in his young life. His story of madness surpasses even his daughter’s diagnosed lunacy. The story of that time of lunacy may even match the madness of Jonah and his quest to “intimately know” Jessie and Carl Jensen.

As all three stories of lunacy spin together, the sweet, protected Jessie may have to act in her own insane way to stop them all. Thriller writers can make readers turn pages, but readers are often left feeling manipulated like the figures in Sylvie’s village.

Author Cynthia Thayer makes you turn pages because you feel so intimately Jessie’s, Carl’s and even Jonah’s pain and fear. Find a copy of “A Certain Lunacy” and walk through the back door of this beautiful marriage and the madness it meets.

Kirsten Cappy is a bookseller in Portland.

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