Stringfellow’s debut novel, Memphis, has drawn accolades far and near. This is a family saga that features three generations of women, a story told with warmth and subtlety. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy. This book is for sale now.
The story commences with Miriam planning to leave her abusive husband. She gets a few things and herds her daughters, Joan and Mya, out of the house. They’re headed to live with Miriam’s sister, August, in Memphis.
The family’s story follows them across time and points of view, but always from the point of view of one of the women. About a third of the way through we find an additional point of view from a character we haven’t met yet, and since we’ve heard from Miriam and August as well as Miriam’s girls, I’m expecting Hazel to be the daughter of either Joan or Mya, granddaughter to Miriam, but that’s not the case. Hazel is Miriam and August’s mother, and the time is the 1930s, a dark time indeed for African-Americans. I like this little surprise. I also love that the narrative embraces only women, across three generations.
As with all good historical fiction, there’s a hidden history lesson here as we follow the Norths across time. On the one hand, I didn’t learn anything new, but I am a history teacher. What I appreciate is the lack of reliance on cheap pop cultural references, and also the lack of revisionism. Stringfellow writes about the past as it was, rather than as she wishes it was. The characters are resonant and believable; my favorite is August. I love the ending.
The story arc is a mighty shallow one, and I’d be hard-pressed to identify the climax. This is my only real criticism.
Because I was a bit behind, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons, and the narrators, Karen Murray and Adenrele Ojo, do a superb job.
Recommended to those that love historical fiction—especially surrounding Civil Rights—and to those that enjoy stories about multiple generations of families.
Black Cloud Rising, the historical novel that’s already been excerpted in The New Yorker, is the book I’ve always wished someone would write. Author David Wright Falade tells the story of the African Brigade, a unit of former slaves tasked with rooting out pockets of Confederate guerilla fighters in the Tidewater region of Virginia and in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. This outstanding work of historical fiction is one of the year’s best surprises, and it’s for sale now.
My thanks go to Net Galley and Grove Press for the review copy.
Sergeant Richard Etheridge is our protagonist; he is the son of a slave and her master. This is the only small criticism I have here; it seems like every time I see a fictional former slave that goes on to do momentous things, he’s the master’s progeny. However, Sergeant Etheridge did exist in real life; I have been unable to discover whether this aspect of his beginnings is fact or fiction. If it’s fact, then I withdraw my objection.
One way or the other, this is nevertheless a fantastic novel. In fact, since I taught the American Civil War for many years and have never heard if this sergeant, I wonder, initially, if his story is even true. But a little research shows Etheridge to be have been real. I had known about the existence of this brigade, but the only aspect of it I’d seen was–oh how embarrassing—from the movie, Glory, in which an all-Black military unit volunteers to lead the charge on Fort Wagner. But there, the story is told not from the viewpoint of infantrymen, but from the Caucasian officer chosen to lead them. It’s not as if I failed to do research; but during my years in the classroom, I couldn’t find a single thing that reflected the memories and experiences of the former slaves that fought for the Union. And although this book comes too late to help me teach the upcoming generation, it will be greatly useful to teachers that come after me.
At the outset of our story, Richard approaches his master at dinner, a thing that is generally not done, to tell him that he is going to enlist in the Union Army. Because he is the master’s son, he is able to get away with this, and this has also allowed him to learn to read and write, which in turn makes him officer material. Richard is a well developed character; it is wrenching to see his loyalty and devotion to his father, as well as to his half-brother Patrick, who is the legitimate heir to his father’s estate. Repeatedly the narrative points out that “the son will always seek out the father,” and it makes me ache for this young man. Nevertheless, he does go to war against his father’s wishes, and he demonstrates leadership and skill under pressure.
There is one visceral scene in which the Caucasian master of a plantation who is linked to the guerilla Confederates, is dragged to his own whipping post and beaten by his former slaves. I find it deeply satisfying. In the end and after much bloodshed, the unit is successful in its mission to clear the area of the guerillas that threaten the Union effort.
In many ways this is a coming of age story, but those that will love it most are those that enjoy military history and all things related to the American Civil War, as well as those interested in the Black struggle. It’s a great selection for Black History Month, but it will make excellent reading during the other eleven months as well. Highly recommended.
Journalist Kelsey McKinney makes her debut as a novelist with God Save the Girls, and I have a hunch we’ll be seeing a lot more of her work. Lucky me, I read it free and early; thanks go to Net Galley and William Morrow for the review copy. This book is for sale now.
Caroline and Abigail are the daughters of the charismatic head pastor at a megachurch in Hope, Texas. This opening paragraph had me at hello:
“For that whole brutal year, Caroline Nolan had begged God to make her life interesting. He sent a plague instead: grasshoppers emerged from the earth in late June, crawling across the dry grass, multiplying too quickly, staying long past their welcome. Now they carpeted the land she’d inherited with her sister, vibrated in the sun like a mirage. As Caroline drove the ranch’s half-mile driveway, she rolled over hundreds of them. She threw the car in park, stepped out into the yellowed grass beside the gravel drive, and crushed their leggy, squirming bodies beneath her sensible heels.”
Teenagers are people that are exploring their own identities, and there’s often some rebellion mixed into those years, but for Caroline and Abigail, there’s not a speck of wiggle room. They are constantly reminded that everything they do reflects upon their father. Forget profanity, street drugs, shoplifting, booze. These girls have even the most minute aspect of their appearances proscribed. Is that V-neck deep enough to show even a smidge of cleavage? Cover it up, or go change. How much leg? Why aren’t you wearing makeup? Not just your smile, but what kind of smile? How you sit. How you stand. And if these confines were not enough to drive any teen bonkers, they live in a fishbowl that every adult seems to own a key to. People come in and out of the family home all day and all evening, so showing up to watch television in your robe and fuzzy slippers in the family room is a risky prospect, too.
I’ll tell you right now, I couldn’t have. I really couldn’t.
But these are girls raised to believe that the Almighty is always watching, and always knows your heart, and so they do their best to shed petty resentments, whereas others must be buried deep. Buried, that is, until a shocking revelation is made about their father’s extracurricular activities.
The story is primarily told through Caroline’s point of view; Abby is the most important secondary character, and she’s interesting, but we see her through Caroline’s lens. I admire the way that McKinney develops both of them, but more than anything, I admire her restraint. In recent years, fundamentalist and evangelical Christian preachers have gone from being rather shocking, daring novelists’ subjects to low-hanging fruit. As I read, I waited for the rest of it. Which girl was Daddy molesting? What else has he done? Has he embezzled? Does he have a male lover on the side somewhere–or Lordy, a boy? But McKinney doesn’t go to any of those places. She keeps the story streamlined, and in doing so not only stands out from the crowd, but is able to go deeper into Caroline’s character.
At the end, when Abigail prepares to marry the dull, dependable boy her parents like, the scene is downright menacing; their mother, Ruthie, is helping her into her dress, and she “wielded a hook like a sword,” and as everyone takes their positions, the walkie-talkies “hiss.”
There’s a good deal more I could tell you, but none of it would be as satisfying for you as reading this book yourself. Your decision boils down to text versus audio, and I advocate for the audio, because Catherine Taber is a badass reader, lending a certain breathless quality to key parts of the narrative. But if you’re visually oriented, you can’t go wrong with the printed word here, either.
Recently, I read and reviewed Weiss’s debut novel, If the Creek Don’t Rise, which was delightful. This year’s novel, All the Little Hopes, is better still. My thanks go to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark for the review copy.
Weiss’s story is of two girls born in different parts of North Carolina, both geographically and culturally, and of how they come together and ultimately, become each other’s family. The novels I love best provide a resonant setting, an original plot, and compelling character development; these three elements don’t compete for the reader’s attention, but rather, each of them serves to develop and reinforce the others. That’s what I find here.
Our story takes place in the 1940s, during World War II. The narrative comes to us in the first person, with the point of view alternating between the girls; we begin with Lucy. Her father is a farmer, and by far his biggest crop is honey. As the story opens, government men come to visit, and they want to buy all of his honey for the war effort. Lucy’s eldest sibling and brother-in-law have both gone to serve in the military, and there’s an emotional scene after the government men leave, because they’ve given permission for both sons to return home to help with the honey. Lucy’s mother pleads with her father to write to them and order them home at once; he stands firm, saying that the choice must be their own. Now we begin seeing how conflict plays out in this family, and how the various relationships work. But all of it is done through the plot, so that we aren’t slowed down by a bunch of emo for its own sake.
Bert, whose given name is Allie Bert, lives in the mountains, and her family has far fewer resources than Lucy’s. Her story unfolds with the death of her mother in childbirth, along with the baby. Her father sends her to live with his sister, Violet, who is expecting a baby of her own. He suggests that Violet will need household help, and Bert can provide it; he doesn’t know that Violet has gone stark, raving mad. When Bert arrives, Violet is behaving irrationally and at times, violently. She locks Bert out of the house in a storm, and the nearest house is that of the Brown family. And so it begins.
One of the most critical aspects of this book’s success is Weiss’s facility in drawing the girls, who are just beginning adolescence. At the outset, we learn that Lucy takes pride in her advanced vocabulary. I groan, because this is often a device that amateurs use to try to gloss over their lack of knowledge relating to adolescents’ development. Make the girl smart, they figure, and then they will have license to write her as if she were an adult. Not so here! These girls are girls. Though it’s not an essential part of the plot, one of my favorite moments is when the girls are locked in a bitter, long-lasting quarrel over whether Nancy Drew is a real person. Bert says she is not; Lucy is sure she is. This isn’t silly to them. It’s a bitter thing. Further into the book, Lucy realizes that it’s more important to be understood, than to use the most advanced word she can come up with. And so my estimation of Weiss rises even higher.
When someone comes from truly devastating poverty, the few things that they own take on great importance. Bert arrives with a treasure box, and in it, she keeps things that may seem inconsequential, but that mean the world to her. And Bert is also light-fingered. After meeting Lucy’s mother, who is one of the nicest people she’s met in her life, she pockets a loose button that Mama means to sew back onto a garment. Bert wants this button fiercely, because Mama has touched it. Later—much later—she confesses this to Lucy, and then to Mama, and is flabbergasted when there is no harsh punishment. She explains to a neighbor,
“Mama says sometimes stealing is necessary, but that don’t make a lick of sense. Stealing’s a crime. Back home, there ain’t two ways bout stealing. You get a whipping. You get sent to your room with no supper. No breakfast the next day neither. Stealing is a sin against the Lord Jesus, so salt gets put on the floor, and you get on your knees on that salt and stay there till you cry out and your knees bleed, till you fall over and Pa says that’s enough.”
One feature of the story is when Nazi prisoners of war are housed nearby, and they become available as labor. At first locals fear them, but then they get to know some of them, and they discover that like themselves, the prisoners play marbles. Gradually, the rules about avoiding the prisoners relaxes to where the girls are allowed to play marbles with them sometimes. “We tread close to the sin of pride when it comes to marbles. I don’t think we can help ourselves.” And now I am veering toward an eyeroll, because (yes, I’ll say it again,) writers are awfully quick to find humanity in Caucasian enemies, whereas we know the story would have been very different had these prisoners been Japanese. BUT, as my eyes narrow and my frown lines deepen, another development occurs that reminds us that these men aren’t really our friends. Again, my admiration increases.
Weiss’s last book was a delight for the first eighty-percent, but it faltered at the end, and so I was eager to see whether this novel stands up all the way through. I love the ending!
You can get this book now, and if you love excellent historical fiction, excellent Southern fiction, or excellent literature in general, you should get it sooner rather than later. If you’re stone cold broke, get on the list at your local library. This is one of the year’s best, hands down.
Pamela Terry’s debut novel, The Sweet Taste of Muscadines, had me at hello. My great thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. You can buy it now.
Lila Bruce Breedlove (I even love the characters’ names) hasn’t gone home to Georgia in a good long while, and it’s not accidental, either. Her home in Maine with her dogs and fond memories of her late husband are the furthest thing from her mama’s censorious gaze and the smallminded thinking of the people of Wesleyan, Georgia. But now Mama has been found facedown in the Muscadine arbor, and Lila knows there’s nothing else to do. She packs her bag, gets a friend to look after the dogs, and buys a ticket. Her brother Henry, who has also made a permanent home up north, does the same, but he advises his life partner, Andrew, to stay put. Their sister, Abigail, is the lone family member that didn’t flee. She and Mama were best friends, as they told everyone constantly, including Lila and Henry. Still, duty calls. It wouldn’t be fair to leave Abigail to do this on her own.
The whole story is told by Lila in the first person limited. I find this refreshing. The tone is intimate, confidential at times, and downright conspiratorial at others. Lila lets us know that “Growing up in the South is not for the faint of heart…When you’re the slightest bit different, you stand out like a monkey in a chorus line.”
Before they’ve even touched down, Lila and Henry have questions. For example, why was Mama in the Muscadines at all? The arbor is nowhere near the house, and she never chose to visit it when she was a younger woman. It had been Lila’s special place. Once they arrive in Georgia, they confront more questions, and though not all of them are answered, a plethora of surprises greet them, some of them hilarious, others shocking. Lila tells us that
Secrets are spilled at southern funerals. Death, particularly when its inevitability has been ignored for generations, possesses a power to snap diffidence and dignity right in two, causing those left behind to be overcome with the need to unburden their consciences before they themselves are found sleeping in a slick, shiny coffin in their best Sunday suit.
The first surprise, it turns out, is that Geneva Bruce left an advance directive specifying no funeral at all upon her demise, which she had known to be imminent. For the widow of a Southern Baptist Georgia preacher to bail from her own funeral is unheard of! However, the lack of a proper funeral does not, cannot prevent family secrets from unspooling, and some of them are bombshells, too.
Terry is a gifted wordsmith, and her figurative language is original and at times, drop dead funny. The pacing never flags, and the transitions that take us from raucous levity, to bittersweet reflection, to aching sorrow, and then back again are buttery smooth. It was like hearing from my best friend. I generally read several books at a time, but this one proved to be the one I read when I would not be interrupted, and I was sorry to see it end.
It was only at about the eighty percent mark that I realized that one of my least favorite elements was included here, that of the Bad Mama. This is a trend right now, and I’m ready to be done with it. Novelists far and wide have enjoyed crafting stories centered around unworthy mothers, and when I see one coming in advance, I consider it a deal-breaker. But almost any device, character, or plot point can be forgiven when a novel is of exceptional quality, and that is what I see here.
This one was worth the wait! John Hart’s new historical mystery, The Unwilling, is simply magnificent. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the galleys; this book will be available to the public February 2, 2021. Those that love excellent fiction should get it and read it.
The French family is troubled. The father is a cop in their small hometown in North Carolina; the mother, Gabrielle, has some sort of emotional disability. Bipolar? Anxiety disorder? Who can say. All we know is that her nerves are shot, and she loses it quickly and easily. The couple have three sons; the first two are twins, but Robert, the golden one, is dead, killed in Vietnam. Jason went to ‘nam too, and rumors say that he killed 29 people there in his first year. He is rumored to be bad news and has already done a stretch in prison. That leaves the youngest, Gibson, known as Gibby. Both parents are possessive of him. As adolescence sets in, it begins to chafe, the way he is overprotected, and now that he’s a high school senior, he’d like a little more room.
And then Jason is released, and he comes home. He isn’t welcome at the family manse, so he stays elsewhere, but he wants to spend some time with Gibby before he blows town.
The title is a chewy one. Initially, I associate it with the daredevil stunt that some high school seniors—mostly boys—consider a rite of passage. It involves jumping into the quarry from a very high bluff; make the jump wrong, and you’ll be dead when you land. Gibby doesn’t jump. Jason does.
The basic framework of the story has to do with crimes Jason has done time for, and others that are committed while he’s in town. A girl he’s spent time with is viciously tortured and murdered, and many in the community make assumptions. But in reality—and we know this early on—he is being framed by a man known as “X” in prison. Truth be told, X is actually the weakest element of the story, and he’s mostly superfluous, but since this is supposed to be a thriller, the thread involving him adds suspense, particularly at the end. The climax is something else again.
But the most interesting aspect of the narrative has to do with the family, and by extension, one could say, all families. Over the course of time, a family’s story is told, and eventually labels develop. The small town setting in a pre-internet era makes this especially true, since most people’s interactions are limited to those that live in the same vicinity. And so, Robert French is the tragic hero, cut down in his prime while fighting for his country; Gibby is the baby of the family, a good kid, a good student; and then there’s Jason. Not long after the murder, Detective French speaks with the medical examiner about Tyra’s murder, and he asks the ME what would make someone do this; not just murder, but torture and mutilate. And the ME tells him that although it’s not the accepted clinical expression, “People like that are born wrong.” And though French is reluctant to say such a thing about his own son, he wonders if he should accept this as true. His wife, mother of all three sons, tells him, “Gibby is all that matters.”
But as the story progresses, we see that there’s more to this story; a lot more. Jason has simply given up trying to defend himself. Refusing to do so is why he spent time in prison. When the world gives up on you, why try? To be sure, he’s no innocent, sad-eyed puppy. He’s seen things, and he’s done things. But people are complicated, and when we try to drop them into neatly labeled boxes, we shut ourselves off from learning details that don’t fit the picture we’ve painted.
For me, this story was less about solving a crime, and more about the characters. I was thrilled that the main story wasn’t about Robert. I’ve read too many novels lately that focus on the dead sibling, and it’s becoming trite. But Hart is a seasoned author, and he doesn’t drop into that well-worn channel. Instead, we see why various well-crafted, complex characters think and act as they do. Reading it, I find myself thinking about my sisters, and the small ways in which we developed labels as children and young adults; happily, none of us was labeled the bad seed, but if we’d been boys…? And I think also of my own children. For a brief, terrible time, I saw my eldest as that person, the one dragging his sister into trouble. Later, much later, I learned it was actually the opposite, but he figured it was better if one of them was still in good standing, and so he took blame that wasn’t entirely his. It’s not a great feeling, but at the same time, my own experience made this story more interesting, and I’m willing to bet there are a great many other readers that will read this book and think about their own families as well.
There are appealing side characters here, and the most compelling is Gibby’s best friend, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who wants to make good.
So who is the unwilling one? Is it Gibby, for not jumping off the bluff? Is it Gabrielle, for not entertaining the possibility that her son, Jason, deserves more than she is willing to give him? Is it Detective French, for not being willing to completely give up on him? You can take this title in a lot of different directions.
Hart’s literary prowess shines here. It’s not always an easy read; during the more violent patches, I took it in small bites. I received both the print and audio galleys, and I moved back and forth between them, leaning more toward the audio, whose reader, Kevin Stillwell, does an outstanding job; but at times I forgot something, or wanted to check a detail or highlight a quote, and then I dove into my digital review copy. You can go either way without fear of disappointment.
In 2015, I read and reviewed Gerald Duff’s Memphis Ribs, the opening book in the Ragsdale and Walker series. It was irreverent but hilarious, and although it straddled the line between edgy but funny and straight-up offensive, it didn’t cross over, and I was still laughing out loud when it ended. I figured I was a Gerald Duff fan for life. All of us love the great literary talents, but a writer that can produce a good, hearty belly laugh is worth his weight in gold. With that in mind, I decided I’d keep an eye out for whatever else he might publish.
When Brash Books offered this second book in the series for review, I leapt on it. I’m sorry to say that I don’t love it the way I did the first. Many of the same components are there—colorful bad guys, snappy banter between the two detectives—but the overall quality is lacking in places, offensive in others.
The mix includes a group of rip-off artists that are stalking an evangelical preacher, and a special needs teenager that the blurb tells us is autistic and also homicidal. I’m glad the blurb clarified these things, because although the character obviously has issues, none of them would suggest autism to me or as far as I can see, to anyone that has worked with autistic teens. So there’s that.
What I do like is the snappy banter between the two cops, which is one of the aspects of the first story that made it work for me. And the bizarro characters—the preacher that uses a cowboy theme to the extreme in his sermons, the odd teenager that appears to idolize him—at the outset seem pretty damn funny too.
But the corrupt Southern preacher schtick has been done quite a lot, and it’s in danger of becoming a trope. I might have locked into the whole cowboy thing, which is unique, but then there are the race jokes. And it’s the way Duff approaches race that tips this book over a deal-breaking boundary. Yes, I get it that the nasty racial remarks are all made by bad guys, but do we need so many of them? It’s as if Duff has studied every racist he’s ever known and catalogued every ugly racial insult for his future use. Less is more, but there are passages where they’re on every page, almost as if the author is looking for a good excuse to dust them off and make ample use of them. At times it’s cringeworthy; then at other times, it’s just sickening. I’m not having a good time anymore at this point, and were it not for my fondness for Brash Books and the previous book in the series, I would have quit reading it midway through. There’s lots of dialogue and it’s a quick read, but then it would be even quicker not to read it at all, and I wouldn’t have this sour feeling in my gut. Sad to say, I think Duff and I are done.
A few years ago I read and reviewed my first book in Connolly’s Charlie Parker detective series, and I became immediately addicted. Since then I’ve never missed an installment, and after the 17th in the series, A Book of Bones, I more or less stalked the internet to find out when I could find the next in the series. It doesn’t disappoint. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for this, the 18th in the series. It’s for sale now.
Here, Connolly steps away from the crossed-genre, pants-on-fire entries he’s written recently to scribe a prequel. A couple of new readers have inquired whether to read this before all of the other Charlie Parker books, or treat it as the 18th. The fact is, you can take it in either direction. On the one hand, I have reached back and read a couple of the first in the series and whereas they are perfectly respectable detective novels, they don’t hold a candle to those he’s written more recently. Once I had read the 14th, which is where I began, I was spoiled and a wee bit disappointed by the earliest books in the series. So whereas it makes sense to start reading with this prequel, I fear some readers will notice a dip in quality if they read this masterful literary mystery Connolly has just published, and then dive into his earliest Charlie Parker books. Again, they aren’t badly written. But they aren’t brilliant, and the most recent five in the series, including this prequel, are. So take that and do as you like with it.
Parker is reeling, as the book unfolds, from the vicious murders of his wife and daughter by a killer that intended to slay him, but found them instead. He is convinced that their murderer is a serial killer, and so he has taken a leave of absence from the police force back home and is touring the country by car, chasing down every murder anywhere that bears a resemblance to theirs. He is a dangerous man, because he has no sense of self-preservation. He sees himself as a man that has lost everything, and such men will take risks that more happily situated investigators would consider unthinkable. He also has a source none of the others can access: his wife, his daughter appear to him now and then, and they tell him things that relate to the case at hand, things that nobody else knows.
Those familiar with the series know that Connolly’s most recent Parker books have veered more in the direction of horror, and they include a number of supernatural events that his earlier work does not. Here he steps away from it, and once again his only information from the great beyond is what the spirits of his loved ones share. His adversaries are purely mortal ones. And as to which is better, it’s hard for me to say. His last book prior to this one is a monster, and it includes a tremendous amount of historical research that I find appealing, along with some hugely original, sinister characters that surely must come straight from the bowels of hell. It’s amazing work.
But there’s something to be said for books like this one, too. Most of Connolly’s work is so edgy and so full of violence that I have had to take it in small bites, lest it affect my overall mood. I didn’t have to do that here. I can crawl under a quilt and read for hours without needing to come up for air. I always make sure I read something less malign for a few minutes before turning out the light, but at the same time, this is a much more comfortable read.
Which is not to say that it’s tame. It isn’t. Someone has murdered Black girls in this tiny Arkansas burg, and Parker pulls into town right on the heels of the most recent one. Right away, it becomes obvious that there’s shifty business going on. The town is miserably depressed economically, and the local robber barons, the Cade family, have a deal in the works to bring a large manufacturer to town. The Cades stand to make a great deal of money, and the locals, poverty-stricken and jobless or badly underemployed, are convinced that better times are just around the corner.
And so it seems that nearly everyone has a stake in keeping the waters calm. The dead girls had to go and get themselves murdered, just when the deal’s about to go through? How inconsiderate. Yes, their killer should be found and brought to justice; but that can wait until the big dogs have signed on the dotted line. Prosperity is just around the corner. A scandal might ruin everything, and Parker refuses to cooperate, insisting on justice for the murdered children. The nerve of him.
Connolly’s signature elements—the malign, solipsistic, endlessly greedy local bourgeoisie; the poignance of Parker’s grief and his communication with his dead family; and the fast paced, complex plot with a zillion characters and some snappy banter are all here in spades. As usual, his writing style is literary, and so this may not be the best choice for someone whose mother tongue is not English.
As always, highly recommended. This is indisputably one of the year’s best. As for me, I’ll be keeping an eagle eye out for the 19th Parker book, because nobody else writes like this.
Therese Anne Fowler is a complete badass. I have never read her before, but you can bet your bottom dollar that I’ll read her next book. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy. You can buy this book now, and you should.
I don’t usually begin by discussing the narrative voice, but I’m doing it this time because it’s one of the most impressive aspects of this novel. The story is told in the second person, but the point of view shifts seamlessly from that of the neighbors that are friends with a key character—I’ll get there in a minute—to an omniscient narrative, and I never catch the shift; by the time I realize a change has taken place, we’ve been there awhile. So, one minute, the narrative will say things like “All of us thought…” and “Everyone knew…” but later, we’ll be told what a protagonist is thinking. This is a risky way to write, and she’s carried it off so well that I can only bow in awe.
The story is, to some extent, a modern day Romeo and Juliet. It’s a tragedy, and we’re told this at the outset. The neighborhood in question is Oak Knoll, an old, established one in North Carolina. Valerie Alston-Holt is a forestry professor with a deep dedication to the environment; her son Xavier is gifted. Xavier’s father was Caucasian, but died when the boy was small, so it is just the two of them, mother and son. The new folks next door, the Whitmans, are a blended family. Julia, the mother, was living a hardscrabble life as a single parent with her daughter, Juniper, when the wealthy, charismatic Brad Whitman, who was her boss, married her. They have a small daughter together, but Brad has also adopted Juniper so that they can be a real family. Julia can hardly believe her good fortune. Her standard of living has risen beyond anything she ever dreamed.
The tension is there from the start. The Whitman home is out of character in comparison to the neighborhood, a garish, over-the-top McMansion built on a large lot created by tearing down the existing home that had been there. And the outcome of the construction is that a tree—a beloved tree—on the Alston-Holt property next door—is now dying. The forestry professor sees an attorney, and the battle is joined.
Despite the tension between the adults, Xavier and Juniper are drawn to one another. They are teenagers, upperclassmen in high school, and they’re both squeaky clean kids, serious students. Neither has been in a serious relationship before. As we see their romance blossom, the narrator reminds us that this won’t end well.
I began this novel using my review copy, and although I could see it was going to be good, I was falling behind my reading for unrelated reasons. I scooped up the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons, and so I can tell you that the reader does a wonderful job, and the story is well suited to this medium.
Fowler is an experienced writer, and it shows. There are several lazy stereotypes she deftly avoids. The Alston-Holts are middle class, not struggling financially. (Here I think of the new book, Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson, who reminds us that only one in five African-American families is poor.) Brad Whitman, who is a complete horse’s ass, is a charismatic Christian, but he is not a preacher, he’s a businessman.
Of course this story has a great deal to say about race and wealth, and how society empowers us according to these parameters. But because the characters are so intimately developed, so brilliantly fleshed out, the message integral to the story never feels like a manifesto. And reader, I’ll tell you, I’m a tough old granny who rarely is undone by a sad story, but I grew a little misty at the end of this one, and I thought about it for quite awhile afterward.
When it comes down to it, some people just have it coming to them.
Amy Engel is the author of The Roanoke Girls, a shocking thriller that proves she is a force to be reckoned with. The Familiar Dark is even better. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Dutton for the review copy. It’s for sale now, and you should get a copy to help chase away your cabin fever.
Eve Taggart was raised poorer than poor in a ripped up trailer in Barren Springs, Missouri; it’s “a slippery part of the world. People dart in and out like minnows in a shadowy pool…Folks here are hard to pin down, even harder to catch…It’s a place for people who don’t want to be found.” Her mother is an addict with a mercurial temper, and so when Eve gives birth to Junie, she resolves to parent differently from her mama, and to never take Junie to visit her. The more space there is between her present and her past, the better off Junie will be.
But when Junie and her best friend, Izzy are found in a public park with their 12-year-old throats slit, everything changes. Without Junie to provide for, all of the social conventions that Eve has so carefully nurtured, all of the tentative connections she has made with mainstream members of the community are gone in an instant. Eve’s older brother Cal, a cop, tries to provide a buffer between Eve and the town, between Eve and their mother, and between Eve and the disastrous errors she makes as a result of her grief; none of it does any good. And Cal is sitting on a secret of his own.
I am generally a reader that has between six and twelve books going at any given time, but once I was about a third of the way into this one, I read nothing else. Instead of asking myself which book I’d like to read right now, I knew exactly. The suspense is built numerous ways, by foreshadowing, by the little hints given by others in her tiny town, but there’s more to it than that. Part of it is Engel’s unusually vivid word smithery and the frank, unsentimental dialogue that moves it forward. But the meatiest part of this story is in the pathological family triangle that—resist it though she has—forms most of Eve’s world. The further we get into the story, the more layers are peeled away and the more we learn about Eve and mama, mama and Cal, and Eve and Cal. We learn some secrets about Junie that poor Eve didn’t know, but these are almost secondary as they reveal more about the three adults. It is mesmerizing.
Eve thinks she has nothing left to live for now that Junie is gone, but Mama, who’s been drawn to the killing like a vulture to roadkill, assures her she is mistaken. What’s left is vengeance. This resonates with Eve. Pulled into a press conference in which she doesn’t want to participate, standing alongside the other bereaved parents, people that are well groomed and whose social skills make them vastly more sympathetic figures to the public than she will ever be, Eve decides to cut to the chase. After the other two plead for possible witnesses to call in tips to the local cops,
“I pointed out at the cameras, stabbing my finger into the air…’I’m going to find you, you sick fuck. And I’m going to tear you apart.’
“I thought about all the press conferences I’d seen over the years, parents trotted out for missing kids, killed kids, abused kids. Everyone feels sorry for those parents, those mothers, until they don’t. Until the mothers don’t cry enough or cry too much. Until the mothers are too put-together or not put-together enough. Until the mother are angry. Because that’s the one thing women are never, ever allowed to be. We can be sad, distraught, confused, pleading, forgiving. But not furious. Fury is reserved for other people. The worst thing you can be is an angry woman, an angry mother.”
Does this ring as true to you as it does to me? Sooner or later, the mother always gets the blame. And so now I am still riveted and I am nodding. Uh huh. That’s right, Eve. Tell it!
When a novel is as outstanding as this one is, I almost hate to read the last fifteen or twenty percent, because often as not, that’s where it comes undone. Either the solution doesn’t hold water, or a hard cold tale of murder and revenge takes on a sudden sentimentality that doesn’t match the rest of the book; in these I sometimes picture editors and publicists urging the author to provide a feel-good ending, and the author ultimately bending. As I progress, I have figured out what the poignantly sweet ending to this one will likely be, if Engel goes in that direction.
But she doesn’t.
Instead, this story is one of badass female bonding gone dark, dark, and darker. Oh hey. The title.