An unvarnished picture of Southern life by debut author Howorth, co-owner of the storied Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi.
After many years, Mary Byrd Thornton receives news that her then-9-year-old stepbrother’s unsolved murder is being reopened. In response, she breaks a plate—a Corelle plate, not her Spode china, because she has a “maddening way of second-thinking her impulses.” As the loose plot follows Mary Byrd from the deep South to her hometown in Virginia to meet the cold-case detective, her impulses and second guesses set the tone. Most of the story takes the form of Mary Byrd's internal monologue, which can indeed be maddening. She’s dedicated to her life as wife and mother in a small college town in Mississippi but unconvinced of her value or efficacy in those roles. She's antsy, too, alert for opportunities to escape into her small stash of prescription pills or dabble in infidelity as she has before. The result is a character who vibrates between self-castigation and stubborn defiance, like a teenager. She makes phone calls in a closet to avoid scrutiny by her family’s longtime African-American housekeeper, Evagreen, sensing that she doesn’t have the right breeding or attitude to earn Evagreen’s respect. This and other moments where Mary Byrd recognizes her white privilege are awkward. She embodies a soup of self-awareness, liberal guilt and helplessness surely familiar—and uncomfortably accurate—to many white people. It’s intriguing that Howorth’s omniscient narration veers into Evagreen’s thoughts at times and later spends a night in the mind of a homeless black man named Teever, a fixture in town. Both are dealing with their own tragedies but exhibit a grounded, confident quality that Mary Byrd lacks. How conscious a judgment this is on the author’s part is hard to say.
Howorth’s dedication to capturing the messy, fraught and politically incorrect pieces of Mississippi life ultimately makes for a compelling read.