Nicholls’ debut chronicles the trials and tribulations of a group of characters grappling with inequality in the Jim Crow South.
In his afterword, Nicholls describes the book as “both a fictional and historical account loosely based on fact.” The protagonist, a nurse named Hannah, returns to her hometown and meets with her distant cousin Sybil, who was in possession of a mysterious ledger, with lists of dates, names, addresses and phone numbers, that has some connection to her family history. Hannah decides to explore some of the mysteries of the ledger on her own, unearthing some very sad, moving stories of love and loss in the pre-integration South. Nicholls has a wonderful eye for detail, and she brings the historical settings to life. The interwoven stories—of Sybil’s doomed affair with a young black activist and of the bravery of a physician who risked his life and security to perform illegal abortions—are rich enough to stand alone. The novel’s nearly fatal flaw is its confusing framing narrative and its toggling between past and present. The novel begins with Hannah in 2012, traveling to her hometown to visit her father and see Sybil. It jumps to 1992, making it clear that Hannah’s investigation into some of the mysteries of the ledger actually took place in the past. The narrative then skips even further back into the 1950s for Sybil’s story, which is not in the ledger, before returning to the present. Everything else about this novel, from its evocative setting to its detailed storytelling, is engaging and full of potential. One or two comprehensive edits and a retooling of the chronology would improve the work significantly.
An enjoyable historical melodrama with a perplexing narrative structure.