Review by: Mark Palm
There are a thousand and one reasons for reading fiction, but I often think that one of the most common ones is the chance to put ourselves in someone else’s place, and to see how the world looks from there. What would it be like to be a hero, or a villain? How would life look if I were walking in another’s shoes? A lot of folks do it to escape, but it is equally interesting to put ourselves in a place that we would never ever want to be. Reading The Passenger by Lisa Lutz is a novel that does just that; it gives us a tale about a woman who is Any Woman, or Everywoman, and, rather than being a dream, it’s a nightmare. It’s fun to be another person by choice, but when the decision is forced upon you, it’s a curse.
The book starts with Tanya Dubois discovering that her older husband Frank has fallen down the stairs and died. Rather than calling an ambulance or the police she cashes in her credit cards, dyes her hair and calls someone on the phone tells them she needs a new identity. For reasons that are slowly revealed throughout the book, Tanya doesn't want to deal with the Police. She flees to Texas where she meets and is befriended by a female bartender named Blue. Blue senses that Tanya-now Amelia is on the run, and asks her to move in with her. When two men try to abduct them Blue unveils a rather frightening set of skills that enable the two women to escape but binds them together as they have to cover up some very serious crimes. The two then separate after an ingenious identity swap and Tanya-now Debra travels to Wyoming to work as a teacher.
Meanwhile, about a quarter of the way into the novel Ms. Lutz introduces an epistolic narrative that consists of a series of emails between “Ryan” a love interest that Tanya left after some catastrophe, and “Jo”, which is apparently Tanya’s real name.
In Wyoming Debra begins to live a somewhat normal life until she befriends a man in a bar named Domenic, which sets off a whole new set of problems that ends with her leaving town and finding a new identity, Emma. (Jo spends an inordinate amount of time drinking in bars, but if I had her life I think I would too.)
Now The Passenger is a seriously twisty thriller, and Ms. Lutz does an excellent job of keeping us off balance, and I wish that I could go into more depth about the plot, but I refuse to drop spoilers, so you’ll have to take my word for it when I tell you that this novel is relentless in it’s pace and the level of tension that Ms. Lutz generates made me sure that I never, ever want to have to life with an assumed identity.
While Blue is a fascinating character, most of the other people in this book have very little substance, but Ms. Lutz makes this book resonate by keeping the focus tightly on the psychological and physical problems of her protagonist. Jo’s life becomes more desperate as her past begins to catch up with her and the level of fear and anxiety she faces on a daily basis makes this book almost unbearably suspenseful. Ms Lutz has a comprehensive grasp of the difficulties that anyone, but particularly a woman, would face in trying to live a life of the grid in our electronic age where identity is paramount. The stress of living a life without using your real name or social security number, of hiding from cameras and the internet are bad enough, but when you have to cover up crimes and fear for your safety, the fear just begins to become overwhelming, and Ms. Lutz brings it all to life with a vividness that makes The Passenger a grueling but compulsively readable thriller.