‘Zenith Man’ by Jennifer Haigh

‘Zenith Man’ is the second story I’ve read in the Amazon Inheritance collection of five original short stories.

The first, ‘Everything My Mother Taught Me’ by Alice Hoffman, was excellent. This one was also very good although in a way that I didn’t expect.

Here’s the publisher’s summary

Whatever had been going on inside the shuttered old house, the couple who lived there kept it to themselves. Among the locals, there’s only chilling speculation.

Neighbors are shocked when Harold Pardee reports his wife dead. No one even knew the eccentric TV repairman was married. Within hours, horrible rumors spread about what that poor woman must have endured for 30 years. Until the Pardees’ carefully guarded world is exposed. 

New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Haigh delivers an endearing short story about our misguided perception of strangers, the nature of love, and the need for secrets.

But what sold it to me was the start:

This story begins with a 911 call.

The first shock was that Harold Pardee’s wife was dead.

The second shock was that he had a wife.

It was a considerable secret to have kept anywhere, never mind in Bakerton, Pennsylvania, a town with four traffic lights. Harold’s wife had lived among them thirty-one years, and yet, when a witness was needed to identify the body, the deputy could find only two people who’d ever seen her. One was Harold. The other was a local oddball named Cob King, Harold’s only friend.’

How could I not read a story that starts like that? I love the quiet but confident tone, the clear images and the sense that something odd but worth hearing the explanation of was about to be shared with me.

‘Zenith Man’ is not a thriller but a sliver of a life lived differently. A man who doesn’t need to explain himself or understand why anyone would expect him to. It’s a story about a love lived quietly and faithfully.

This gives a worldview that is off the mainstream but that is presented very much in the way the man in the story lives: feeling no need to comment on itself.

The language is low-key, unpretentious but beautiful in an unassuming way. The storytelling is gentle but focused.

It quietly refused to offer up the thriller the blurb half left me expecting but it gave me something much better.

I didn’t find this endearing. That’s too soft and too patronising a word. I found this to be a tale of love and strength where the two people involved took both attributes as a given.

I didn’t think it was about secrets but about privacy. We don’t owe our neighbours disclosure. The privacy here is extreme but it’s driven by love and it’s fundamental to happiness. That needs no excuse and no explanation.

This works very well as an audiobook. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample:

I used ‘Zenith Man’ as a Jennifer Haigh sampler. Now I want to read one of her Pennsylvania novels. I’m going to start with ‘Heat & Light’

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