"Come in and Cover Me," (Riverhead Books), by Gin Phillips: Ren Taylor, the appealing, soul-searching character at the heart of this novel, is an archaeologist of some renown in the canyons of the New Mexico desert.
She has uncovered an extraordinary set of exotic ceramic pottery of a 12th-century artist of the Mimbres, a long-vanished tribe of Native Americans; now she wants to flesh out the artist's puzzling story. With the help of a colleague and would-be lover, Silas Cooper, she begins to do so.
But she will need something more to show the way — ghostly visitations by the prehistoric artist herself, named Lynay, as well as by an older Mimbres woman, Non.
For Ren, these encounters with the dead have a precedent. Her brother Scott, who died at 17 in a car accident when she was 12, has been making playful, song-filled visits with her for years.
With a sure hand, the book's author, Gin Phillips, weaves this strand of the supernatural through a compelling modern story of love and loss.
"Come in and Cover Me" is Phillips' second novel. Her first, "The Well and the Mine," was set in a Depression-era town in her native Alabama. Published in 2008, it had an introduction by Alabama author and actress Fannie Flagg and made Phillips a new writer of promise.
Relocating her fictional terrain to the sweeping vistas of the Southwest, Phillips has mined scholarly archaeological research to bring historical texture to her latest novel and give life to the intriguing Mimbres people and culture.
Set in 2009, when Ren is 37 and enamored of the slightly older Silas, the story ranges far beyond the dust of an archaeological dig with its tedious scrapings, screenings and brushings. Amid the canyon outcroppings, romance is in the air. When Ren and Silas first meet at a remote site, their sleeping quarters — a bunkhouse with two bedrooms and a shared bath — opens the door to intimacy.
The story also moves back and forth in time, as Ren's memories, both touching and wrenching, reflect on her once-happy family and how it was shattered by her brother's death.
Silas, too, recalls memorable events from his youth, some of them hair-raising, that have shaped him into a self-reliant man. But it is the emotionally scarred and at times mystical Ren who drives the narrative.
She is not just searching for answers to the puzzling life story of the prehistoric artist whose hands shaped lovely bowls. There's the puzzle of her own life as well.