At a time when our country is again in the midst of a noisy national conversation about race, Kevin Powers creates a powerful fiction to illuminate the not-so-distant terrors and strains of our Civil War. Powers touches our sensitive places and his sentences carry knowledge from which none of us can hide.
The work is a feast of imagination, packed full with exemplars of character definition, narrative structure, tone, style, language choice. Language is the first thing one notices. Each sentence conveys both a history and a future, though we won’t know that until later. Rounding back on the novel’s beginning after a time we realize how much we have already been told, by given- and place names, though we couldn’t have understood it. We grow watchful, anticipating these signposts, and read carefully.
The economy and poetry of the language gives our read a languor; we won’t rush to some conclusion because the journey is the point. We breathe in the foggy sea air, and the stench of rotting limbs. We note what the narrator chooses to notice: “Emily had been to Richmond only twice in her life. She found the endless stone and brick suffocating.” But of course. Only northerners or outsiders wouldn’t crave the breezy clapboards on tree-lined drives outside the city center in the heat of the summer.
Characters have real depth. We are introduced to the slave Rawls; at no time does this feel like appropriation of the black man’s experience. Rawls has a quiet unquenchable fury “inscrutable and vast,” but he determines to find something within himself his owners can’t touch. Levallois is Rawls’ white landowner near Richmond, Virginia in the mid-1860’s. The pathology of his character is sharp as a shard of untempered glass. He is calculating and exploitative, transactional only, sly in exploiting the human nature of others less damaged than himself.
The novel’s dreadful propulsion is because of this character Levallois: what horror he will perpetrate next, and will he get his comeuppance? How many will he infect with hatred or kill before he is stopped? The path to that answer winds through a later century that hints to some of what happened. We are introduced to a man called George Seldom, believed to be a Negro of ninety some-odd years in 1955, who carries a sharp, thin-bladed knife with a handle of elk antler with which we are already familiar. In 1863, Levallois used it to kill noiselessly, needlessly a ferry owner named Spanish Jim.
We read for voices like Rawls and his wife Nurse, strong and resistant yet vulnerable. They arouse in us a sense of justice, and give us strength in light of very poor odds, shades of the heroic classic Les Misérables. We know enough of Levallois to know his sociopathy and hollowness, his wife Emily not much better. Near the end of this small corner of Civil War history Emily begins to grasp responsibility for her role, but we can’t forgive her. She’ll have to carry her burdens alone in the many years she has to contemplate them in backward glances.
The timeline in the novel is ever-shifting, but that merely adds intrigue and mystery—the kind of the puzzlement books of history often leave us with. When George Seldom admits a kind of suspicion towards history, this reader is inclined to agree that fiction, done well, may capture more truth than some histories. We read to know why, not just how, and history doesn’t often give us that.
“The truth has not mattered for a long time…the only thing that matters here…is what people are willing to believe.”Of the several lives recorded in this novel, there are two that don’t fit easily the genealogies revealed here. One is a woman artist and part-time mail carrier who marries a reformed alcoholic and auto mechanic. The two live well together, deeply in love. Her heritage is mixed race including Croatan, black, and white and her maiden name is Bride. He appears to be white, his surname Rivers, perhaps descended from Sheriff Patrick Rivers, a “wholly unremarkable” and dull man who appears in this history after the war in Virginia near Beauvais Plantation.
There, it happened. This fiction has become a kind of history, or this history has become a fiction. We’re not exactly sure except that the time is not that long ago—only a generation or two—and we should be able to grasp motivation if we had a few more connections. What we do know is that plenty people died before their time for reasons their children and their children’s children no longer recognize. When does memory become fiction and does what happens now matter more than what happened then?
This is a deeply involving read; the author spans one hundred years but he left out the boring bits. The work is a kind of model for how to keep the reader understanding complicated knots in intertwined personal histories that last more than one lifetime. The language is peerless, and the capture of human nature cannot be denied. It feels a long time since I have been as enraptured by a fiction. Beautiful work.
Postscript There is an Australian author who has Powers' similarly expansive sense of literature and the writing chops to pull it off. Rohan Wilson places his fiction in earlier-century histories of Tasmania and manages to make the work as big and heroic as those he implicitly references. My reviews here cannot capture his overwhelming talent and the skill he demonstrates in The Roving Party and To Name Those Lost.
Links to my reviews for Powers' earlier work:
The Yellow Birds
Letter Composed During A Lull in the Fighting