“We will choose what we take with us.”
This thunderous debut by Andrea Bobotis bears a small
resemblance to the work of Elizabeth Strout and the late Harper Lee. Issues of
race and menacing family secrets simmer beneath the surface of this narrative
like some otherworldly being biding its time in the swamp, till at last it
rises and we must look at it.
As the story commences, Judith, who is quite elderly, is
ready to take inventory. Her family home, all six thousand square feet of it,
is jammed full of heirlooms, and each is fraught with history. The year is
1989, but as Judith examines one heirloom and then another, she takes us back
to the period just before the stock market crashes, back when she was young and
her parents and brother were still alive.
I have to confess that the first time I picked up this story—free to me, thanks to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark—I thought, Huh. A boring old lady and her stuff. Pub date’s a ways off, so let’s put this one on the bottom of the pile. Of course, I picked it up again later. I read a bit farther this time and found I was acutely uncomfortable; I told myself I had to read it because I had requested the galley, but then I didn’t for awhile.
But like Judith, I pride myself on being reliable, so toward
the end of June I squared my shoulders and opened the book. An hour later my
jaw was on the floor and my husband was avoiding me, because he knew if he got
too close I would start reading out loud. If you were to show up right now I’d
do the same to you. I genuinely believe this novel and the characters and
social issues they’re steeped in is one for our time.
Judith is the eldest of the Kratt children; her companion,
Olva, lives with her, but her status is undetermined and remains that way far
into the book. Part of the time she appears to be a live-in servant, hopping up
whenever Judith wants a cup of tea or a blanket; at other times the two of them
sit on the porch together and watch the world go by as if they were sisters or
good friends. We know that they grew up together and share a history as well as
the trauma of growing up with the vicious, unpredictable Daddy Kratt, the
wealthiest man in Bound at the time.
As layer after layer is peeled back, using the household
treasures that are inventoried as a framework of sorts, we see the gratuitous
cruelty that was part of both women’s daily existence as children. Kratt can be
generous at times, and yet at others—with increasing frequency—he is vicious
and sadistic. We see the responses his unpredictable fury brings out of Judith
as a child, her younger brother Quincy, who’s a chip off the old block, and
their younger sister, Rosemarie. Kratt can ruin someone’s entire life purely on
whim and never feel the slightest regret. He likes to watch. The entire town
Now he’s gone, and here we are. Judith acknowledges that her
social skills are stunted, and she never knows what to say or do to smooth a
difficult situation. She was never a pretty girl, and she has never
married. We can also see that she is
solipsistic, insensitive to the feelings of others, and at times just
straight-up mean, but she doesn’t see herself that way, because she measures
herself against her late parents. Judith
is nowhere near as nasty as her daddy was; she has never permitted herself to
be broken by him, as her mother was. So
Judith tends to let herself off the hook lightly. As she remembers back over
the years the cataclysmic events that have taken place around her—or in some
cases, because of her—her overall tone is self-congratulatory.
But her little sister, who is also an old lady now, returns
to the family manse, and that overturns the apple cart in a big way. How dare Rosemarie run out and leave Judith
to contend with that awful man but now come back to claim her birthright? Isn’t that right, Olva?
Olva just smiles.
In fact, this story is every bit as much about Olva as it is
about Judith. . Every single one of these women is sitting on secrets; every
one of them has a different story to tell. Every new revelation brings
additional questions to mind, so that although this is not a mystery or a
thriller, I cannot stand to put it down. I generally like to flop on my bed at
night and read before I go to sleep, but I can’t do that with this book. I’d
climb under the covers; open the book; read a little ways and then sit bolt
upright. Eventually I realized that this cannot be the bedtime story. (It
occurs to me just now that retelling one or another portion of this story in
the voice of one of the characters not heard from would make a great creative
writing assignment related to point of view.)
What Bobotis has done here is masterful. She begins with an
old, wealthy white woman and yet develops her, and I cannot think of even a
dozen books where that has been accomplished in a believable way in literature;
once we get old, that’s pretty much who we are going to be. But the elderly Judith
at the story’s end is a better person than the elderly Judith at the outset.
And as if that weren’t enough, she also develops Olva, the dark-skinned elderly
companion that seems to us, at the beginning, to be a live-in servant or nurse
of some sort. But however circumspect Olva has been—a prerequisite for an
African-American that wants to stay alive in the American South in the past and
at times, maybe the present—Olva does in fact have some things to say. It is
Rosemarie’s return that makes this possible.
This isn’t necessarily a fun novel to read, and yet the
skill with which it is rendered is a beautiful thing in and of itself. I
believed every one of these characters, those within this pathologically
corrupt family and those around it. I suspect that the formidably talented
Bobotis could pluck any one of these characters and create a sequel just as
remarkable. This writer is going to be around for a long, long time, and as for
me? I’m ready to read whatever she comes up with next.