Author:  Rene Gutteridge
Title:  Listen
Publisher:  Tyndale

What happens when private conversations really aren't private?

On the surface, Marlo seems an ideal town in which to live, a close-knit community where the newspaper business is suffering because there's so little to report. But a mystery is brewing, causing tensions to rise and pitting neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend. An unknown someone is quoting whole conversations between townspeople, posting them on a Web site for anyone to read.

Who is listening, and by what means? How will people react when their conversations go public? And who is responsible for the consequences when confidential words provoke unexpected reactions?

Reporter Damien Underwood and his family—wife, Kay, and children Hunter and Jenna—anchor the story of Marlo's mysterious web site. The previously sedate, even boring, news cycle in Marlo is enlivened by a local pastor's cat found strung up in a tree, and a church deacon blamed for it. The only link between the two appears to be complaints the deacon made privately, in a conversation with his wife, about a church-related issue. How would anyone know what he said, and why did it get posted verbatim on this anonymous site?

Tensions escalate as other citizens discover surprising truths about one another through words they were never meant to hear. The once quaint, peaceful town roils with bitterness, conflict, fear, and mistrust. Damien, formerly the opinion editor and crossword puzzle writer, turns investigative reporter. His discoveries, both disturbing and surprising, lead to a stunning conclusion.

Woven skillfully into the main story, the subplot of the Underwood family dynamics sheds light on the book's theme—the power of words. Kay struggles to connect with her daughter, while Damien bumbles his fatherly talks with Hunter in several humorously written scenes. Readers will identify with these well-developed characters.

While appropriately tense and intense, the story flows quickly. Rene Gutteridge blends humorous and witty dialogue with insight into the human psyche to create likeable, real characters. Readers will cheer for them, feel sorry for them, or even dismiss them (whichever reaction the author intends for us to have … she's that good).

Gutteridge explores how words shine truth on hidden reality. Readers will easily connect this theme with the biblical passage alluded to several times in the story, James 3:8-10, which  says, "But no human being can subdue the tongue; it is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. ... From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. These things should not be so, my brothers and sisters."

One character bemoans how the web site has changed Marlo into a different, ugly place to live. Another points out that the web site has only revealed what was there all along but concealed behind closed doors. Marlo hadn't changed at all—its true nature had just been exposed.

The reader is left to ponder the same questions that perplexed Marlo. Is the power of words limited if they are not heard by the person in question? Or do words have power intrinsically? What are the consequences of hateful words, even those spoken when no one is apparently listening?

How aware am I of the words I say? Do they curse, or do they bless?



**This review first published on March 30, 2010.