Novels that tell the story of archaeologists uncovering the layers of their past while they sift through layers of dirt are common. Once the author introduces an archaeologist, the reader can be fairly certain that this digger has a troubled past, and that this past is bound to come to light over the course of the next 300-odd pages. Come in and Cover Me, the newest book by Gin Phillips, is no exception to this rule.
In this iteration of the story, Ren Taylor is a 37-year-old archaeologist who has made a career out of the discovery of an unusual set of Mimbres pottery believed to have been created by a single twelfth-century artist. One day she receives a call from a remote dig that has unearthed a bowl similar to her earlier finds. Naturally, Ren hits the road and joins the dig, seducing the hunky lead archaeologist, Silas, along the way.
So far, so good. But complications arise in the form of Ren’s permanently 17-year-old brother Scott, who died 20 years earlier. Unable to cope with his death, Ren has spent the last two decades rejecting emotional attachments and having visions of ghosts—usually Scott, but also Mimbres women, who indicate places where Ren should dig to uncover artifacts.
This isolated way of life has not hindered Ren much in the past, but it becomes an issue when she falls in love with Silas. As a further snag in the story, Silas and Ren’s archaeological methods conflict, fueling tension on the dig.
The set-up has potential, and Ms. Phillips does show some restraint in her use of ghosts as a plot device—a tricky element for any author. Where the novel breaks down, however, is its character development, which feels forced throughout. Few of the characters leave a lasting impression; in fact, the most fully realized and memorable character is Scott, and he is dead.
Ren herself is the biggest problem of the story. We are told that she is attractive to men and highly intelligent, but her charm is not obvious, and I remained unconvinced of her legitimacy as an archaeologist.
Eschewing more traditional scientific approaches, Ren relies almost entirely on the Mimbres ghosts’ guidance to conduct her excavations. When she and Silas do uncover artifacts, she shies away from conversation about the finds, reflecting that “she wanted to feel this, not think it.”
No serious scholar with 20 years of experience in a rigorous, science-driven discipline approaches her work in this way. Ultimately, Ms. Phillips’s research into the Mimbres culture might be both thorough and careful, but her research on the academic personality is faulty, and this deficiency weakens the narrative. Furthermore, by setting up a dynamic in which a woman presents frankly irrational arguments in favor of a personal, emotional approach to history while a man argues for reason and scientific methodology, the author presents the same tired picture of gender differences that has plagued our culture for centuries.
There are flashes of Ms. Phillips’ talent throughout: a striking scene in which the figure of Jesus breaks free of a church window and hurls panes of glass down on the congregation is truly powerful, although confusing in light of the author’s apparent insistence on the ghosts’ reality. Several passages describing the fears that suddenly sprout and multiply when a person falls in love are beautiful and have the ring of truth.
In the end, though, the novel’s distinguishing characteristic is competence, which is a cold sensation to derive from literature. Ms. Phillips might benefit from a less complicated plot (and fewer supernatural characters) in her next effort.