British author Ross debuts with a Faulkner-like saga of love and hate in a racially divided South—ending it in melodrama staged with blood, tears, and tricks.
Agatha Salisbury, high yellow, never knew her parents—nor why from her early childhood the white Jamie Campbell became so constant a visitor at the house in Edene, North Carolina, that she lived in with her widowed grandfather. Not until the bitter end will it be known who Jamie Campbell really is or what he’s really meant to Agatha—and getting to that end is a route long and indirect. At the opening, the intelligent Agatha has already gone to New York, gotten a degree, worked as a math professor—and then, on her aged grandfather’s death, come back to Edene. There, she takes on the raising of a black boy named Tony Pellar—a mute, it seems, until events show otherwise (and later, otherwise again)—and for income works as housekeeper for the crabby Miss Ezekial, white and also raising a boy, her grandson Mikey Tennyson. These events take place in the ’60s, when “night riders” torment (and sometimes kill) civil rights workers—and when they threaten even Agatha, who secretly helps targeted blacks escape to the north. Much of the story, in flashback, is told by Tony, now in his 30s and eking out a paranoia- and guilt-ridden life in the subway tunnels of New York City. Why his near-psychotic fears, his imagining that Agatha is coming to kill him? Where is Agatha? What did happen to her 30-some years back? In urgent, unpunctuated passages, Tony recalls his old friendship with Mikey, begins to exchange letters with him (Mikey is now a professor himself), and gradually disinters not only the horror of what finally destroyed the courageous Agatha, but, less substantially compelling, a whole batch of romance-style guess-who-was-really-who’s.
Strong and weak, imitative and authentic, by turns.