Ancestral guilt, racial conflict, and the call of the unlived life are the dominant themes of this intricate, slow-moving second novel from the South Carolinian author (All Set About With Fever Trees, 1985; The Laughing Place, 1993).
It all begins in 1989, with a wry panoramic look at the seaport city of Charleston and its colorful history. Then Durban focuses on 60-ish Louisa Hilliard Marion, a brusque spinster who resides in the old Hilliard home: a plantation-owner’s mansion that harbors deep secrets haughtily repressed by Louisa’s elderly mother, a distracted matron who chooses to “remember” the Hilliards’ decent treatment of their slaves. But her mother’s death releases Louisa to look more critically at that past, as she examines both family memorabilia and her own memories. Crucial evidence is found in the recently discovered diary, kept during the 1830s, by Eliza Hilliard, another unmarried dutiful daughter (whose “sacrifices” mockingly mirror Louisa’s). Eliza’s own myopic view of race relations emerges in her self-righteous account of ongoing attempts to humble a proud, recalcitrant slave woman, Diana, herself the ancestor of the Marions’ devoted housemaid Mamie. The story of Mamie’s family also emerges through the consciousness of her granddaughter Evelyn Pope, who politely yet firmly resists Louisa’s efforts to explore their families’ interrelatedness. Meanwhile, the narrative’s complicated structure works only intermittently, and its power steadily diffuses. When Louisa unearths the full truth about the slavewoman Diana’s fate, it’s scarcely more revealing than had been Eliza Hilliard’s earliest disclosures, and the effect is distinctly anticlimactic. The tale’s best moments are in its details: of Louisa’s stoical surrender to loneliness; a harrowing description of a “stranger’s [i.e., yellow] fever” epidemic; and the testimony of aged former slave “Maum Harriette” (“Before freedom came, us been Hilliard labor”), recorded as an oral history document.
Not an especially artful novel, though a generally absorbing and eventually very moving one. Durban really isn’t one of the better novelists around, but her patience and compassion make her fiction very attractive—and worth paying attention to.