An earnest debut novel painstakingly records an uprooted black woman’s recovery of her scattered family’s even more scattered history.
In 1976, Helene Strickland travels from Washington, DC (where she works in a nursing home), to Arkansas’s impoverished Lafayette County when summoned by her estranged mother Queen Ester—who had abandoned baby Helene to be raised by the child’s warmhearted Aunt Annie b (sic). After learning that Annie b has died, Helene confronts her mother, who does allow her daughter into her house, and, to a limited extent, her memories. Reynolds then juxtaposes Helene’s inquiries about the anger and contention that have consumed her family’s generations with detailed flashbacks (presented, oddly, as omniscient narrative rather than from the viewpoint of a specific character, remembering). We gradually learn of the rise to property ownership and security of Helene’s itinerant maternal grandmother Liberty, herself a child abandoned, by both her parents. Then Liberty’s story is connected to that of Chester “Chess” Hubbert, the son of Mississippi tenant farmers victimized by the flooding of hastily constructed levees: a rootless, sexually confused charmer whose vertiginous careening from one woman to another eventually involved him with both Liberty (who took the wanderer in) and teenaged Queen Ester, in a combustible “batch of love and hate cooked up all together” that could only produce envy, hatred, and catastrophe. Reynolds creates striking, brooding, indisputably real characters and writes about them with assurance and lyric grace. But Knee Deep in Wonder (a strange title, incidentally) is structurally suspect, especially when its illogical deployment of viewpoints is stretched further, late in the novel, to accommodate those of both Chess and a man known as “other,” who seems to hold the final piece to the puzzle that Helene is laboriously assembling.
Strong writing throughout, however, from a very promising writer with a world-class imagination.