It’s unfortunate that the female and non-white characters, particularly Aylen, a Native American sex worker, are often treated like objects by the white male protagonists or by the narrative. For example, Wyatt’s obsession with Callie hinges only upon her resemblance to his dead wife, and has nothing to do with her personally. Many of Travis’s 21st-century problems are reflected in Wyatt’s past, which is laid out in unevenly distributed, exposition-heavy flashbacks, stuttering the plot’s pace. Otherwise, Goldberg (The Desire Card) is an efficient writer, drawing complex, sympathetic portraits of Callie, Wyatt, and Travis, all of whom are flawed and compelling in their own ways.
Small-town Alaska is brought to vivid life with tight prose and clear descriptions (“Morning brings out the fishermen along the docks. Pungent smells lining the air. Bristly beards and heavy gear to stave off the sleet”), creating a perfect quotidien backdrop to Wyatt and Travis’s eerie rivalry. The bloody opening scene, in which a newly revived Wyatt strangles and eats a wolf, is an outlier; the bulk of the novel is light on physical violence and will please fans of more psychological suspense. This richly imagined story of ancestors and descendants is written in a confident voice and well suited to anyone interested in the complexities of identity and legacy.
Takeaway: This compulsively readable thriller will disturb and delight anyone who has ever contemplated what it means to be an ancestor or a descendant.
Great for fans of Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone, Laura Sims’s Looker.
Design and typography: A
Marketing copy: B+
A man’s attempts to recapture his past lead him down a heinous path in Lee Matthew Goldberg’s thriller, The Ancestor.
Wyatt is a man outside of time. Somehow, he has survived in stasis since 1898 in the Alaskan wilderness, waking in the year 2020. He had been trekking through the unknown in search of gold, leaving behind a wife and son. Reeling from the discovery of his one hundred and fifty years of sleep and the loss of his family, Wyatt meets his great great grandson, Travis, and his wife and son. Desperate to recapture what he lost, Wyatt plots to ingratiate himself to his descendants and take advantage of the uncanny similarity in looks between himself and Travis.
The Ancestor is straightforward and deliberate. The story’s dark tone is established early on and carries through to the end, even in moments that could offer reprieve. Its sustained nature isn’t fatiguing, though: it pushes the story forward and mirrors Wyatt’s paths to acting on his darker impulses in the past and present. Characters’ motivations are expressed up front, and all of this straightforwardness is what makes the book a mystery. Wyatt is told what will happen to him and the decisions he will make; he still barrels toward those eventualities without thought. He is singular in his quests for gold and belonging.
The gold rush aspects of story are its most explanatory and most detailed in terms of Wyatt’s motivations and foibles. At first sparing and then shared all at once, Wyatt’s 1898 Klondike gold rush expedition is shared via heroin-induced flashback journal entries, rich in descriptions of the vast, snowy, and deadly wilderness of Alaska, and capturing the type of person who chases gold. For Wyatt, this means denial about his own selfishness, greed, jealousy, and violent tendencies. These characteristics are as consistent through time as the Chilkoot Pass, the primary route of the Klondike gold rush.
Traveling through the Klondike would be incomplete without encounters with its original First Nations inhabitants. In both the past and the present, the Tlingit nation play a pivotal role in the novel. Kaawishté, a Tlingit warrior, is a key character of the past, serving as guide and eventual friend to Wyatt during his search for gold. Their joint experiences working alongside a village of Tagish people spark in Wyatt a respect for First Nations and Native American people that he previously lacked. Aylen, a Tlingit sex worker, is a key character in the present. She becomes a confidante for Wyatt, someone to whom he can pour out his story. She is, like the novel’s other women are, a prop for the men in her life, though: Aylen is someone to be used, not someone to come home to. In contrast, Wyatt’s wife is someone to leave, but who will always be there, and Travis’s wife is someone to covet. The Alaska of the novel is a man’s world.
Knowing the ending is a peculiarity that does not diminish the journey toward it. With the rugged landscape of Alaska as a backdrop, mounting dread pushes The Ancestor to its inevitable conclusion.
In 2020, a mysterious man finds himself stranded in the freezing wilderness. He doesn’t know where he is or how he got there, or even his name. He’s about to be eaten by a pack of wolves when a pair of hunters save him by shooting off their guns. From a distance, the man notices that one of the hunters looks exactly like him; he hides and sneaks into the back of the hunters’ truck. It ends up in Laner, Alaska, where Travis Barlow, the look-alike, lives with his wife, Callie, and their son, Eli. Travis’ father, Stu, is the town sheriff, and Travis’ grandfather Clifford lives nearby. Travis once had a brother, Bobby, whose cause of death remains a mystery. The newcomer finds a journal in his coat, which helps his memory. His name is Wyatt Barlow, and in 1898, he left his Washington farm to seek gold in Alaska. He determines that he must be a Barlow ancestor who somehow ended up in the future; he also misses his wife and son and recalls a horrible crime he committed. At first, Wyatt scavenges around Laner for food and shelter while taking trips to Travis’ house to spy on the family: “Is this the wife and son he craves?” Eventually, Wyatt presents himself to Travis, who experiences “the awe that a doppelgänger can unearth.” The moment gives them the feeling of “eras colliding.” Travis helps Wyatt get a job, and he, too, becomes fascinated by his double. Travis has been in a rut, and Wyatt’s presence fills him with a sense of adventure, but Wyatt’s plans are less clear as he plots his own future.
Over the course of this novel, Goldberg demonstrates an impressive command of his ensemble, smoothly differentiating multiple characters and detailing their arcs through time. He always keeps the plot moving forward, even when characters turn to the past, such as Stu, who can’t let go of Bobby’s death, and Wyatt, who wishes his wife and child had followed him to the present. Moments of humor brighten the story, as when Wyatt, at length, recalls a fellow traveler correctly identifying him as a gold-rusher: “What gave it away?” Wyatt asks. The man replies, “There ain’t a stench of fish or God on ya.” At other points, Goldberg’s writing is more meditative and reaches an impressive level of emotional clarity, as when Travis considers the sea: “This ocean that brings the town life, but has taken it away too. The final resting place for his brother who went out high on bad shit. He never stood a chance, not even from birth.” The small-town setting, the family dynamics, and the abnormal circumstances of Wyatt’s arrival result in a story that blends the familiar and the supernatural in a manner that call Stephen King’s work to mind. That said, Goldberg’s book possesses a flavor all its own—a distinctive mélange of the sincere and the strange.
An offbeat and gripping novel of family pain.