Wide Open
Deborah Coates

Tor Books
Hardcover, 304 pages, $24.99
Review by Sheila M. Merritt

Sergeant Hallie Michaels is accustomed to wide open spaces. She hails from rural South Dakota and is serving in Afghanistan. While on duty, she “dies” for seven minutes; and when she comes back, her consciousness is expanded. Soon the dead appear to her. The title Wide Open, therefore, applies not merely to the geographical locations cited in the novel. It also represents a state of mind. Author Deborah Coates does a fine job delineating emotional conflict and complex characters. And even though the narrative often skates into a series of confrontations, it is easy to become engaged.

Hallie returns stateside for the funeral of her sister, Dell. Though the death is still under investigation, the locals presume it was a suicide. Hallie will not accept the possibility; it isn’t in keeping with Dell’s personality. Plus, the deceased sibling has appeared to Hallie; becoming a nagging presence with a mission. Although the apparition does not speak, she does coldly convey a sense that foul play was involved in her passing. She is joined by other female phantoms that mutely press and relentlessly nudge. Persistent and probing, Hallie ruffles many feathers in the community. The most hostile is a glib entrepreneur with an arcane agenda. He appears able to manipulate weather; a sinister CEO who employs the supernatural to achieve his goals. Hallie once dated the dude before he turned slick and success oriented. Now, however, she is more inclined to an awkward alliance with Boyd Davies, the town’s deputy sheriff. Boyd is secretive and attractively angst-ridden: “He seemed an odd combination of more relaxed out of uniform and desperate in some deeply hidden way, visible only in how he looked at her and the way a single muscle twitched along his jawline.”

The duo verbally spars, sparking all kinds of clashing sentiments in Hallie. Used to being independent and resourceful, she registers confusing new feelings and frustration: “Not because she wanted him – god knew, she didn’t want him, she didn’t want anyone – but she wanted to need something, or get something she needed, to feel something that wasn’t dying or dead or in pain.”

Given a limited leave from the military, Hallie is in full avenger mode and doesn’t always act with consummate wisdom or care. She chronically places herself in situations that elicit dangerous responses, endangering others in the process. Yet despite this dogged determination that seethes with desperation, she is an intriguing protagonist. Her intensity, and the passion of her convictions, are conveyed with such empathy that is difficult to be overly critical of her mental myopia. Affinity is also achieved by highlighting the personal turmoil inherent in spectral communication. These are icy interactions that literally chill to the bone: “She felt as if she’d been standing outside at the South Pole in a blizzard.”

Communicating with the dead brings new insight about the living. Hallie is a woman of few words; and often the wrong ones, at that. Non-verbal is her preferred means of expression, although it confounds her in others; especially the unspeaking wraiths and taciturn Boyd. When a swelling of emotion occurs, it throbs with physical fervor: “She wanted to squeeze his hand so tight, it would crush the bones in his fingers to dust, felt like that was the only way the feelings inside her – love and fear and hate – could be acknowledged and understood.”

Wide Open touchingly explores the vast expanses of the mind and heart. Deborah Coates has concocted an effective first novel that thrums with feeling.

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