Long Ago and Far Away by John Coyne, an ambitious novel spanning time and place, connects the disparate worlds of Parker Bishop, a former CIA agent who retreated to safety and anonymity as a proprietor of a second hand book store in Westchester County, New York — thus masking his undercover past with respectability that included a beloved wife and two daughters.
Bishop’s wife Sara has just died of cancer when the great love of his youth, the beautiful Irish McCann, reappears unexpectedly, first in the form of her travel guide to Ethiopia, and eventually in person. Irish also has cancer, but is not dying, not yet, not until she — and Parker Bishop — confront their murky history and forty-year-old mystery: the unsolved death of Irish’s college friend Cate in Ethiopia. Cate was a Peace Corps Volunteer, stationed in Fiche when she fell or was pushed from a ledge on the edge of the Rift Valley. Bishop, then a CIA operative, was using Cate and her site mate John as his unwitting sources, and Irish was writing the travel guide to Ethiopia when their lives converged. Was Cate’s death a tragic accident? Or was it murder? Was Bishop an unwitting accessory to a cover-up or just doing his job?
Coyne writes with the easy authority of a man who knows his territory, a territory familiar to those of us lucky enough to be in Ethiopia in the days before Haile Selassie was deposed in “the creeping coup” as Coyne calls it. His evocative recall of sights and sounds from the Piazza to Siddist Kilo in Addis Ababa, the Rift Valley and beyond, with a convincingly realized detour to Menorca, is an added bonus in this book that explores the power of early trauma to color and shape the trajectory of a life.
Although not written as a memoir, fictional or otherwise, Long Ago and Far Awayis a meditation on the past, patching time and place together in the quilt that makes up a life — some squares faded, imperfectly realized, others sharp, beautiful and as fresh as the day they happened.
The book is structured as a mystery. Was Cate murdered? By whom? While arriving at the answer to that question is satisfying — and unexpected — solving the mystery fades in importance as ancient hurts, or should I say guilty wounds, are forgiven. Coyne knows we are all guilty of something and finds with Thomas Merton — yes, Merton shows up in this surprising novel — that forgiveness and redemption begin with oneself. “Forgiveness is our salvation, love is our destiny,” Merton says. Perhaps that is the gift of this book that takes the reader down the many paths of one man’s life. The power of forgiveness and love ultimately resolve the unanswered questions at the heart of this novel, questions less about how did Cate die, than how do we all resolve and accept our own messy, complicated lives!
The work of reviewer Kathleen Coskran, writer and teacher, has appeared in several anthologies and her collection of short stories, The High Price of Everything, won a Minnesota Book Award as did Tanzania on Tuesday: Writing by American Women Abroad which she co-edited. She is the recipient of numerous awards, fellowships and residencies including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Bush Artist’s Fellowship, and two grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board. She is currently writing flash fiction on her blog called Pocket Stories