Audiobook narration is an intimate art, made all the more so when the listener uses earphones; the performer’s voice seems to be manifesting inside your head. This effect is particularly powerful in novels where the story turns on the characters’ efforts to distinguish external or social reality from the internal and personal sort. Peter Rock’s eerie “The Shelter Cycle” is just such a novel.
It’s the story of Colville and Francine, each around 30 years old and former childhood friends. Francine has married, and is expecting her first child in suburban Boise, Idaho. Colville lives in a trailer but turns up on Francine’s doorstep when a news story about a neighbor’s missing child mysteriously inspires him to seek her out.
What Colville and Francine share, and what Francine’s apprehensive husband, Wells, can begin to fathom, is their past as members of a reclusive religious sect planning for the imminent end of the world. Francine’s father helped build the underground compound where the sect expected to ride out a nuclear holocaust, and Colville’s beloved younger brother was regarded as a chosen one, destined for some great mission. (Instead, he became a soldier and was killed in Afghanistan.) How exactly the sect fell apart is revealed gradually, and the novel’s action culminates in striking passages describing a visit to the groups now-deserted subterranean shelter.
Amy Rubinate, who narrates the audiobook, is not a particularly flexible performer, but her voice — hushed and grainy, with the shivering tension of someone who is working herself up to telling you the most frightening thing that ever happened to her without ever quite getting there — is perfect for “The Shelter Cycle.” It’s the voice of a ruminating self, a person rolling over and over the events of a lifetime, trying to make sense of them, which is exactly what Colville and Francine are doing.
Rock’s novel is closely based on his research into the history of the Church Universal and Triumphant, led by Elizabeth Clare Prophet, called the Messenger by her followers. Viewed by outsiders, the Activity (as Francine calls the church) is a doomsday cult, but she remembers a warm, joyful childhood saturated with a sense of meaning and the knowledge that her immediate family would always be with her, no matter what fate awaited the rest of the world. Her life with Wells, she can’t help noticing, seems diminished, and part of the novel consists of an account Francine has written for her child, explaining how the past looked from her perspective.
Colville, on the other hand, has drifted away from the Activity and then back again — or at least toward its remnants. He still inhabits a world of “entities” and “elementals,” a world in which a visit from a raccoon signifies the launch of a quest. He’s visited by mysterious helpers and guided along the way by signs and portents. In the passages of the novel told from his perspective, the reader has no doubt that Colville is gentle and thoughtful, but around the edges seeps in an awareness that the world might not see him that way at all. The interiority of Rubinate’s voice — not just in the Francine chapters, but also in the Colville ones — wraps the reader inside Rock’s characters, heightening the sense that they are insulated from everyday contemporary life by their extraordinary personal histories. There could be no better vehicle for this remarkable, empathetic exploration of the nature of faith, meaning and happiness.
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