In the mountains of North Carolina, a dour preacher begins to suspect his wife is a witch after she befriends a well-meaning agent from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Set in 1939, Franks’ disquieting debut is the story of Irenie Lambey, a restive farm wife living a smaller life than she’d intended. Her husband, Brodis, is a preacher whose fundamentalism prohibits even piano playing, making Irenie’s day-to-day existence so claustrophobic that she’s taken to sneaking out in the middle of the night for long walks: “the only part of her life that belonged to her alone.” Everything changes when Irenie meets Ginny Furman, a USDA agent assigned to teach the local women how to modernize their homes (sample course offering: “Linoleum Makes Easy Cleaning”). Irenie is attracted to Ginny’s independence, and the two become friends. But after Brodis learns of Irenie’s secret walks, he starts to believe his wife has come under the influence of a diabolical force, resulting in a chain of events that leads to catastrophe. Franks is at her best bringing to life 1930s Appalachia, creating fully drawn characters as idiosyncratic as the language they use (a man is described as a “slope-shouldered do-less,” goose bumps are “the all-overs,” etc.). She works especially hard to humanize Brodis, taking his religiosity seriously and avoiding caricature. But in going to such great lengths to explain how Brodis came to believe what he believes, she drains the story of some of its energy, focusing too much on his back story and his long-simmering resentments and not quite enough on Irenie’s (much more unpredictable) journey. Ultimately, Brodis’ role in the novel is much like his role in the marriage: sucking up more oxygen than is his due.
Though at times unevenly paced, Franks’ debut is a thoughtful exploration of one woman’s quest to live life on her own terms.