A mysterious abandonment and reunion frame multi-generational trauma, racial violence and lasting emotional damage.
Middle-aged Alice is making strawberry jam when her mother Olivia, who abandoned her at age four, knocks on the front door. From the moment Alice answers with “bloodlike glaze dripping” from her fingers, we know we are in portentous (and occasionally pretentious) southern gothic territory. Best known for the easy charm of her Hope Springs trilogy, here Hinton (The Last Odd Day, 2004, etc.) taps into the darker, if not deeper, vein of her recent work. Olivia dies soon after Alice meets her. Grieving, Alice recalls her awful foster childhood and then the book settles into the story of Olivia’s birth and life. Olivia’s mother Mattie is a sex-driven, emotionally frigid product of her own father’s violence. She arrives in Greensboro, N.C., pregnant, but in deep denial, her five-year-old son Roy tagging along like an afterthought. She settles into a shack on the edge of Smoketown, Greensboro’s black ghetto, right next to Ruth, a saintly black woman with her own history of violence. Olivia is born on the heels of the grotesque killing of a young black man and the dramatic ice storm that follows. Ruth’s children, Tree, and her dreamy older brother, E. Saul, become Olivia’s only real friends. Roy, however, turns mean and violent as he grows into manhood, setting the scene for more horrific violence, events that shatter Olivia and the little love she has known. The dénouement, told from Alice’s point of view, offers a few shreds of redemption and a sermon-like anecdote justifying the title (Hinton is a pastor).
There are some fine characterizations and much drama here, but the author’s uneven lyricism (she veers into purple prose and cliché) and limited psychological acuity (cycles of abuse figure largely here) doesn’t quite rise to the challenge of her material.