People talk about having an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. I had a pair of imaginary bill collectors, so no matter which way I turned, there was somebody to remind me I needed money. That’s how I ended up on a train at four o’clock in the morning with my nephew and a hundred pounds of weed.
Bryn Greenwood met acclaim with All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, which
I also read and reviewed, and I liked it a lot, but The Reckless Oath We Made is special, possibly the best novel we’ll
see in 2019. The charm of the narrative voice is just as strong as the last if
not more so, but there’s greater character development. It’s quirky and
groundbreaking, and I will love this story until the day I die. My thanks go to
Net Galley and Putnam for the review copy. You can buy it now.
Zhorzha—you can call her Zee—is
in a state of perpetual crisis. Her father is in prison for robbery, and her
mother has fallen apart, become a hoarder, massively obese, and agoraphobic to
boot. At age 12, Zee was forced to leave home, and has been sofa cruising ever
since. Recently she’s been staying with her sister LaReigne, but now LaReigne has
been kidnapped. Zee and her nephew Marcus are stranded with nobody left to call
for a ride; then her stalker steps forward and offers them a lift, and she
It’s the beginning of something
Gentry has been following Zee for
years; he saw her at physical therapy when she was recovering from a serious accident,
and the voices in his head told him that he must be her champion. He doesn’t
harass her, but he is always there. When all hell breaks loose, Gentry
transports her to her mother’s house, but it’s even worse there. She is
humiliated to have him—or anyone—see what kind of squalor her mother has
chosen, but Gentry sees her mother
entirely differently, and since his narrative is peppered alternately with Zee’s
and occasional glimpses of side characters’ perspectives, he tells us:
There, in the inner chamber, reclined upon a throne of red leather that scarce contained her serpentine hugeness, was the dragon Lady Zhorzha called Mother. My lady was blessed with a great mane of fire that ne comb ne blade might tame. Mayhap in the dragon’s youth, she had worn such a mantle, but in her age, her hairs weren grayed.
Fearless, Marcus approached the throne and flung himself upon the lady dragon. For a time, there was kissing and lamenting, for they weren greatly distressed with the fate of my lady’s sister…I would go upon my knee, but the dragon’s hoard was too close upon her.
At one point someone asks Zee
whether she talks like Gentry too, and she replies, “Honestly, I don’t always
understand what he says. I got a C in English in high school, and we never got
to Shakespeare. I wasn’t in the advanced class.”
In fact, the juxtaposition of
Gentry’s old world speech and Zee’s contemporary, frank responses that keep the
story hopping. I laughed out loud several times when we moved from his speech
to hers, for example:
Lady Zhorzha! Art’ou well?
Oh, thank fuck, Gentry. Yes. We’re okay.
But as much as I love Gentry, I
love Zee harder. Zee is utterly believable, and she is unlike any other
character I have read anywhere. She explains, when she’s asked whether she goes
hunting with Gentry, that she wouldn’t know how; she comes from generations of “citified
white trash whose main food-related struggle has to do with “opening dented
cans of off-brand Spam from the food bank.”
Zee is a large woman, and I am so
heartily tired of tiny-firecracker female protagonists that I am cheered tremendously.
She’s nearly six feet tall, and her
uncle says she is “Built like she could hunt bear with a stick.” When she is
leaving the emergency room after a scare involving her mother, a staff member
advises Zee to lose weight herself. One of Gentry’s friends notes that “Honestly,
if she dropped fifty or sixty pounds, she would be pretty hot.”
And the thing I appreciate the
most about this is that her weight not our central problem. It isn’t a problem
at all. Zee is a romantic heroine who is fat, but this is an incidental part of
her character. The problem is the kidnapping, and it’s complicated by all of
the other challenges faced by poor people, challenges that Zee has to face
without much of a tool kit; but between the kidnapping and the point when
LaReigne is found, other life-changing events take place, and the Zhorzha we
see at the story’s end is both wiser and happier than she is at the outset.
Greenwood doesn’t just avoid
stereotypes in recounting Zee’s plight; she knocks the knees from beneath them
and gives us breathing human beings and real world plot points instead, and she
does it without being obvious about it. This is no manifesto; it’s more like a
magnificent modern-day fairytale.
Take Gentry again, for example.
Gentry is autistic, but he is not friendless, and he has some mad skills that take
bullies unawares. Also? Gentry is
adopted. He is white; his adoptive mother is Black. Again, this is incidental
to the story, but readers cannot miss it; there’s a very brief spot that brings
it front and center, and I cheer when I see it.
Those that read my reviews know
that I seldom gush, but this story is perfect in so many ways that I cannot
help myself. By this time next year, I will have read roughly 140 more books,
but I will still remember Zee, and I will still remember Gentry. This is among
the sweetest stories of 2019, a new
I highly recommend this book to
everyone that has the literacy skills and stamina to brave Gentry’s prose. Get
it at full price or discounted, from the library or stolen. You won’t be sorry.