A debut literary novel tells the story of a couple confronted by surreal elements from the South’s troubled past.
Adrian Dussett is a woman haunted by her past. Molested as a child by a friend of her mother’s, she developed a shell to protect her inner self from the world even though this casing has kept her from finding happiness and love. After Katrina destroys her native New Orleans—her former abuser drowns and Adrian herself only escapes the flood by sawing her way onto her mother’s roof—she ends up in the quiet town of Northport, Alabama. From the outside, her life appears normal. She operates a charitable investment firm and lives with her supportive boyfriend, Ben Hughes. But Adrian begins to see things that she can’t explain to other people: a doppelgänger of her dead mother; a ghost ship sailing through the clouds; a cicada emerging fully formed from a cut in her palm. It might be madness or PTSD, but it might have something to do with the mysterious black town of Okahika—which seems to exist simultaneously in different states throughout the South—and the folklore associated with it. As Adrian and Ben suffer through intrusions into the life they’ve tried to build, they are pulled back into the checkered history of the region and their people, where the waters of African myth and American tragedy mingle in anticipation of the coming flood. Johnson writes in a lyrical prose that blends the vernacular voice with crisp images and an ear for music: “The area used to be a black neighborhood, but it’s just a vacant lot now. There are no buildings left for a haint to haunt, but if one popped out of the pokeweed berries and said how you be baby, I’d say awrite.” The narration jumps among Adrian, Ben, and the educational podcasts that he listens to—the influence of African masks on Picasso, the sculptures of Willie Cole. This grounds the magical realist elements of the plot in sensible (if not always reliable) narrators. The book is disjointed, fluid, and perhaps overstuffed with motifs, but its unpredictable turns and metafictional flourishes should appeal to fans of challenging literary novels.
An intricate and often beautiful magical realist treatment of the South.