The Dark Side of Devotion Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, The Contortionists

Shayla Frandsen


Note: The Dialogue Foundation provides the web format of article as a courtesy. Please note that there may be unintentional differences from the printed version. For citational and biographical purposes, please use the printed version or the PDFs provided online and on JSTOR.

Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner. The Contortionists. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2020. 358 pp. Paper: $16.95. ISBN: 978-1560852896.

When a five-year-old boy tragically disappears from a quiet LDS neighborhood, grief-stricken family members, detectives, ward members, and suspects all struggle to find their footing in the agonizing aftermath. In The Contortionists, the new novel from Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, alliances shift, secrets are withheld, and readers are immersed into a propulsive, suspenseful mystery, chilling from beginning to end.

One of the novel’s most compelling devices is the twining of past narratives with present, which Van Wagoner handles with a deft touch. Every structural move builds upon the last, a fine example of construction and pacing. His characters’ choices in the aftermath of the boy’s disappearance stand in stark contrast to—or confirmation of—the dubious actions of their past selves. The author has created characters who toggle between sympathetic and loathsome in a way that renders them entirely human, and few are spared his critical eye. The climax of this taut mystery is shocking in its revelation of the profound unknowability that lies in the human heart.

The Contortionists takes a surgeon’s scalpel to LDS culture, picking apart the ways in which religious zealotry can drive families and people to ruin. Rarely has the dark underbelly of the quest for perfection—or, at least, the appearance of perfection—been so painfully, meticulously examined, nor the outcome so tragic. Sometimes the division between the sacred and the profane balances on a knife’s edge, and other times it stretches across a chasm. In The Contortionists, it’s both. It’s uncomfortable to realize that, for several of the characters in the novel, all it takes to shift from acceptable Mormon orthodoxy to unhinged, maybe even murderous, fanaticism is—well, not much. A dangerous interpretation of doctrine is only the beginning. Is Van Wagoner trying to point readers to the fact that there might be something within the genetic makeup of the LDS Church specifically that, when pushed to its noxious outer extreme, could elicit more damage than good? Or is The Contortionists a grim fantasy in which the LDS Church is merely the backdrop, and not the catalyst, of such tragedy?

“We’re all contortionists living one lie or another,” Melissa, the mother of the missing child, says in a flashback. “Sometimes it’s the only honorable thing to do” (141). She’s on a long-distance phone call with her sister Karley, who quit her mission to live with a Norwegian man that she and her companion met on the stairwell in their apartment building. Although Melissa’s poison-laced words are her attempt to talk some sense into Karley, the novel is titled The Contortionists for a reason: it explores the ways in which imperfect humans contort themselves into shapes that will best defend their worldviews from attack. Sometimes their contortions are determined by the people or events around them—purely reactionary moves driven by placation, disbelief, misery, or anger. Other times, the contortions are a solo effort, stemming from an individual obsession with fulfilling God’s plan. Reading this book was like watching a performer contort their body on a stage and subsequently probing not only the shapes their limbs made but the negative space around and in between. Van Wagoner notes every glance, silence, and gaze, and readers will quickly learn that everything, both said and unsaid, can be a clue.

The love scenes are many and necessary, and Van Wagoner withholds nothing from the charged, intimate moments. The interrogation scenes at the police office—my favorite scenes in the book—are no less meticulously tracked. Every new page seemed to bring as many questions for me as it did for Detective Craig, the welcome beacon of humanity in a book full of moral and spiritual bleakness. There is substance abuse, trauma, and the crumbling of institutions once thought unshakable. While at times the dialogue felt unnatural and it is clear that Van Wagoner has a few favorite turns of phrase that he returns to often, the prose of The Contortionists is, overall, impressive. Van Wagoner has managed to write a lyrical mystery novel, sweeping both the Utah landscape and idiosyncrasies of Mormon culture into his sphere of literary depiction (lines like “If the gods sweat, it was sure to smell like the Great Salt Lake” and “Melissa’s relief could have filled a Mormon temple” are a delight).

I will admit that mysteries are not the typical literary fare I turn to. When child endangerment is thrown into the mix, I recoil even more. Yet I was surprised by how much I enjoyed The Contortionists, and fans of dark, suspenseful thrillers will enjoy it as well.

SHAYLA FRANDSEN {[email protected]} is an MFA student studying fiction at Brigham Young University. She previously received an MA in English literature from The City University of New York and a BA in English from BYU. Her writing has appeared in Exponent II and as a finalist for the Long Story Short Award. She enjoys reading, writing stories about stubborn women, and hiking with her husband and three children.