Published by Scribner, this novel came to my attention only when it popped up on the Booker Prize longlist for 2016. Ostensibly, it is about loss, endeavour and opportunities for redemption. Sadly, the lasting impression of this book is one of bitterness and human pettiness. The prose is consistently elegant and at times, entirely enchanting, which is probably why this review sounds like one big whinge, because this novel could have been brilliant.
Set in the 1920’s, Roscoe T Martin lives on a failing farm in Alabama with his wife, Marie, and their son, Gerald. It was her father’s land which she has dragged him to, when he would rather live where he can get work as an electrician. He is curiously, and not quite credibly, obsessed with electricity itself. Thus, his ingenious plan to save the farm involves the installation of power lines which siphon electricity from Alabama Power’s grid. He does this without asking and after a brief time of prosperity for the farm, tragedy ensues.
The bulk of the novel concerns itself with Roscoe’s time in prison, where he undergoes various horrors before ingratiating himself with some of the guards and the warden. His decline, however, is mostly physical, and through various flashbacks provided both by himself and by Marie, we find that he was always somewhat lacking in terms of empathy. He is, however, if not sympathetic, largely credible as a character.
Which is more than can be said for Marie. The chief issue with the novel is her unwarranted resentment, which leads to cruelties unbefitting of her personality. This is not to say that her grief from a previous tragedy, or her disappointment in Roscoe, are unimportant, unsubstantiated or even uninteresting. Just that her resulting actions are badly justified, by herself and author alike, and that she perhaps earned more of my disdain than I felt necessary or beneficial to the novel. Her coldness is not, as implied, a logical, tragic outcome of her sufferings.
The real heroes of the novel are Wilson and his family; free people of colour hired to labour on the land from Marie’s father’s time. They remain constantly human, even while embodying that most challenging of virtues, mercy. They are the flickering glimmer of hope in a dark world, and thanks to them the novel comes to a vaguely positive conclusion, which was almost as satisfying as it was bizarre.
Curiously, despite my complaints, I still consider this a good read, having wolfed it down as I did, that I would recommend to anybody willing to form their own opinion of it.