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Hidden terrors of the past plague the present in 'Black Out'

Annie Powers looks like she's living the dream.

Annie, her devoted husband and their angelic little daughter have a grand new house in a gated Florida beachfront enclave, plenty of money and what looks like a wonderful life.

But the dreams Annie is living are not so sweet, and that life isn't what it seems.

Neither is Annie.

Author Lisa Unger's last two books, Beautiful Lies and Sliver of Truth, were thrillers about New York photographer Ridley Jones. Questions of identity and deception fueled their speedy plots, and those themes howl into overdrive in her new book, Black Out.

Unger, who lives in Clearwater, sets this story in Florida, deftly making use of both its teeming, gleaming coasts and its untamed places. Annie, who spent her teen years in rural Central Florida, remembers it this way: "I knew that the wooded area was rife with snakes and citrus rats, a terrible sampling of insects and spiders. Part of me wanted to enter its cover and be consumed by it. It seemed wild and barely contained, like most of Florida, as if it were only waiting for us to stop moving and clearing and digging, manicuring and trimming, for even just a minute, so that the lush greenness of this place could swallow all our silly structures, take back its rightful place on our earth."

It's no accident that Annie refers to "part of me" wanting to walk into those dark metaphorical woods. Annie Powers is an invention, a carefully carved mask for a woman named Ophelia March. And Ophelia is officially dead.

Before she supposedly perished in a spectacular car crash, Ophelia was perhaps the accomplice, perhaps the victim, certainly the lover of a serial killer. She was rescued from him by Gray Powers, who became her husband after he created a new identity for her — all in a day's work for a partner in a private security firm (which means a Blackwaterish mercenary military contractor).

The mask she wears is a pretty one, but Annie has trouble maintaining it. Who she is, who she was and how much of what she remembers is real: All are elusive.

She recalls her childhood as Ophelia well: a mostly absent father, a mother more interested in her own love life than her daughter's care. Not terrible parents, just indifferent.

Things take a turn for the worse — way worse — when Ophelia's mom gets engaged and mother and daughter move to Florida to be closer to the fiance, Frank Geary. Frank doesn't have the option of moving, since he's on death row for raping and murdering several women.

Ophelia is appalled when her mother undertakes a legal campaign to get Frank a new trial. To make matters worse, Frank's son, the beautiful and damaged Marlowe, shows up on the doorstep and moves in with them. Then, incredibly, Frank gets his retrial — and is freed.

The resulting horrors dismantled Ophelia's sense of herself long before she met Gray and embraced a new identity. There are huge black holes in her memory and years of psychiatric treatment behind her.

She's done pretty well since the birth of her daughter, Victory. But now, several years later, her panic attacks are returning, her nightmares are growing harder to distinguish from waking life, and one evening a dark figure trails her down the beach as she returns from a neighbor's party.

Annie is so keenly aware of her own tendency to hallucinations that she's relieved when her housekeeper sees him, too. But that's cold comfort. Annie's life spins out of control with sickening speed, and soon she is on the run, desperate to draw a reborn danger away from the child she loves.

Most of Black Out is told in first person, and Unger does a masterful job of keeping the reader engaged with Annie even while trying to guess whether what she says is the truth, a delusion or a deliberate lie. She is capable of all three, and as the plot revs up, it becomes clear that many of those around her may be wearing disguises far more devious than hers.

Those complexities are intensified by the plot structure, which moves among Ophelia's past, Annie's carefully constructed suburban life and her headlong flight. As Black Out spirals through one shock after another, it becomes increasingly clear that not only can Annie trust no one else, she can't always trust herself.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at or (727) 893-8435.

Black Out • By Lisa Unger; Shaye Areheart Books, 358 pages, $23

Meet the authorLisa Unger will appear at a book release and signing party from 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday at Barnes & Noble Clearwater, 23654 US 19 N.

Hidden terrors of the past plague the present in 'Black Out' 05/24/08 [Last modified: Saturday, May 24, 2008 4:31am]
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