When one girl goes missing, another slides into her place in Smith’s hauntingly gorgeous debut novel.
At 14, Cindy Stoat lives with her two older brothers in rural Pennsylvania, “basically feral” since, a few months ago, their mother last floated out of their lives. And it is during this bleak summer that Jude Vanderjohn, the sometime girlfriend of Cindy’s brother, Virgil, goes missing. Cindy has been fascinated by Jude for years: Jude is older and cooler than she is and better off, the daughter of a professor, and the only black person in school (“well, mixed, but in Greene County that meant basically the same thing”). In the weeks after her disappearance, it is Virgil who takes on the role of caretaker for Jude’s ailing, alcoholic mother, Bernadette. Cindy’s presence at Bernadette’s is, at first, a fluke, a way to escape the oppressive reality of her own life at home. Until, one night, Bernadette, in her state, mistakes Cindy for Jude, and Cindy slowly slips into the role. “I wasn’t trying to become Jude. Not exactly. But I wanted to disappear, and she had left a space,” she explains. “When I stepped into that space, I vanished from my senses. It changed me into someone who didn’t have my actual mind.” As Jude, Cindy becomes, for the first time, somebody’s daughter, even if it’s a delusion. Alone together, the two share a tenuous dreamlike existence where Jude isn’t lost and Cindy is loved. And it’s a kindness, isn’t it, to spare Bernadette from unthinkable pain? This is how Cindy justifies it to herself, anyway—how she keeps justifying it even after she’s crossed lines that can’t be uncrossed. It sounds overwrought; it isn’t. Smith, who never insults her characters by pitying them, captures this unstable world with matter-of-fact poetry, spare and sensual and surprisingly funny.
Bleak and vivid; Smith’s characters are as rich as her prose.