What a coincidence that I happened to read a story about the mysterious disappearance of British author Helen Bailey shortly before I finished Lisa Lutz’s stylish noir, The Passenger. Bailey left a note to say that she needed some time to herself, but when her partner and family declared themselves concerned about her safety, the case was raised to “high risk.” “In this day and age, you would not expect someone to go missing and there to be no footprint,” said the chief inspector in charge of the case.
The Passenger is about the difficulty of going “off the grid” in the U.S., as experienced by a woman whom we come to know as she cycles through many different identities. “Before computers and mammoth databases and the NSA, I could have picked a name, moved to a new town, and run with it,” muses Amelia Keen, formerly Tanya Dubois. “But now it felt like every time I wanted to try on an identity coat, it began to unravel he moment I slipped my arm into the sleeve.”
The book’s protagonist—I’ll refer to her as Tanya—goes on the run after her husband dies. He fell down a flight of stairs, but Tanya is convinced that if she reports his death to the police, they’ll discover her true identity. Tanya is a fugitive, living in Wisconsin after escaping her hometown in the Pacific Northwest a decade ago, after a pivotal event that isn’t fully explained until much later in the book. “I couldn’t imagine how I’d summon tears or sell that shattered look of loss. I can’t show much emotion anymore… There was a time I used to cry, but that was another lifetime ago.”
Tanya’s travels bring her to Austin, TX, and into the orbit of a female bartender named Blue, who turns out to play a crucial role in Tanya’s life, providing her with a place to stay and then yet another identity. Eventually, though, Tanya discovers that she can’t run forever; the 21st century is an unforgiving time for a person who just wants to disappear. When she finally decides to confront her past head-on, old family secrets are revealed.
Tanya is not always a sympathetic character; readers may find themselves debating throughout the book whether she’s more sinned against than sinner, and how reliable a narrator she actually is. The one thing that’s certain is that Lutz has written an exceptionally well-plotted, suspenseful novel.