Raveling tells the story of the Airie family of rural New York, a family torn apart by a senseless, unresolved tragedy. Twenty years before the primary narrative begins, the youngest of the Aerie children, seven-year-old Fiona, disappears during the course of a crowded, drunken Labor Day party. Her body is never found and, in spite of a massive, protracted investigation, no one is ever implicated in her disappearance. Two decades later, Fiona remains a troubling presence, haunting the surviving members of her family, and transforming the novel into a kind of realistic, non-traditional ghost story.
In the aftermath of Fiona's disappearance, the Aerie family literally unravels. The parents -- Hannah, a physical therapist, and James, a pilot with a history of infidelity -- eventually divorce. The youngest son, nine-year-old Pilot, begins a lifelong process of psychological withdrawal. Following a bizarre episode in which he sees himself as the Wolf Boy -- a creature bereft of language and disconnected from his own species -- he settles into a less dramatic series of personal failures, ending up as a homeless drifter living on the beaches of Southern California. Only Eric, the oldest Aerie sibling, flourishes, breezing through medical school and establishing a successful, lucrative practice as a brain surgeon.
As the novel begins, life in the Aerie family has just taken another turn for the worse. Hannah, the mother, has begun to experience symptoms -- possibly psychosomatic -- of deteriorating vision. At first, she sees ghostly double images of everything. Eventually, the world becomes a blur, and all she can see with any clarity is another kind of ghost: Fiona, whose image takes up residence in the Aerie household. At about this time, Pilot, rescued by Eric from the beaches of California, returns to his childhood home and suffers a full-blown psychotic episode. He wanders into the woods behind his home and spends three days in a state of complete catatonia, after which he is formally diagnosed as schizophrenic, and placed in the care of a clinical psychologist named Katherine De Quincy-Joy.
Pilot emerges from this psychotic interlude convinced that Eric, for unknown reasons, murdered Fiona and hid her body. Pilot also believes he has proof of Eric's guilt: a child's sneaker and a bloody knife he claims to have found beneath Eric's bed on the morning after Fiona's disappearance. But Pilot, who is obviously delusional, can't remember where he stashed the evidence. And neither he nor the reader can be absolutely certain that his disordered memories are real.
Uncertainty is, in fact, the animating principle of this novel. Everything that happens in Raveling -- everything we see, hear, and think we understand -- is filtered through the clouded perspective of Pilot Aerie, the quintessential unreliable narrator. Is Eric Aerie really a killer, or is he a misunderstood savior? Is Pilot really a bone-fide schizophrenic, or is he the victim of an artificial, drug-induced psychosis? Could Pilot himself have murdered Fiona in a forgotten moment of psychotic rage? These are among the many questions that dominate the novel, and Smith withholds the answers until the very end, leading us through his dense, carefully constructed narrative maze with the ease and assurance of a natural-born novelist.
By any reasonable standards, Raveling is a remarkable debut, an intelligent, original creation that is alternately moving and suspenseful, disorienting and illuminating. With exquisite deliberation, Smith unearths the buried fragments of an excruciating domestic tragedy. At the same time, he shows us how the world looks from the constantly shifting perspective of a damaged young man struggling to achieve clarity, closure, and a lost sense of coherence. All in all, it's an impressive performance, and announces the arrival of a gifted new novelist who takes large risks and offers equally large rewards.