The secrets and lies of Savannah, Georgia’s upper crust come to light in Gabriel’s (Circle of the Ancestors, 2014, etc.) Southern Gothic novel.
For decades, Iris Temple has manipulated those around her by using her own wealth, position, illness, and idiosyncrasies. More importantly, she also has a ledger begun by her great-grandfather, containing secrets about Savannah’s rich and powerful, which is safely locked up at the bank. Queenie, Iris’ companion for 35 years, is also her half sister; it’s an uneasy relationship, given Queenie’s family’s long history with the Temples—first as slaves, and then as servants. Iris’ iron grip on those around her is threatened when a classified ad appears in the newspaper: “FOUND. One Book of Temple Secrets. First Secret to be revealed tomorrow.” As the secrets begin to come out (such as, “Several Savannah patriarchs have mix-raced [sic] children”), the town erupts in anger. Further disclosures unearth long-buried truths and stir up the Temple mansion’s many ghosts, leading to a final, cleansing confrontation. Gabriel unfolds her story deftly, with well-paced revelations about the complicated relationships between the mansion’s white and black inhabitants. Queenie’s 100-year-old mother, Old Sally, who still practices “Gullah magic,” is an intriguing counterpart to Iris: both are powerful matriarchs in their own way, though Old Sally possesses a contentment and benevolence that Iris doesn’t. Gabriel also evokes the Spanish moss–covered atmosphere of ghost-filled Savannah, and the Temple mansion in particular, with satisfying spookiness. Iris, however, is a heavy-handed caricature—a snobby, querulous, ever-flatulent joke that isn’t very funny. Also, although the novel strives to rebalance the inequities of history, it offers a different set of stereotypes, instead: Old Sally, for example, is a magical, sainted minority who has a special connection to the unseen, while white people are always uptight at funerals. Still, the final chapters hold a few surprises that add some dimension. The author’s thoughtfulness about masters and slaves, employers and servants, and family relations also contributes to a satisfying read.
Savannah’s atmosphere, culture, and history flavor this often-engaging tale of intertwined families.