In this debut novel, a child grows up under the shadow of her family’s dysfunction.
When DG’s mother, Margaret, begins to leave home for extended hiatuses, the girl is far too young—only 5 years old—to understand why. Her father, Alcide Louis Pitre, blames it on her recurrent fatigue, and her grandpa chalks it up to extreme sensitivity: “Your mama, I think she just feels too much. Feels everything too much.” When Margaret is around, she seems to float in and out of a fuguelike trance, sometimes sleeping the entire day away, leaving DG to tend to her younger siblings. One day, she greets DG with warm affection but forgets her name, a moment heart-rendingly captured by Watkins. Alcide is a pipeliner, and as a result, the family moves often and broadly—Louisiana, Georgia, Texas, Australia, South Africa—and that peripatetic rootlessness only adds to DG’s feelings of dislocation. But over time, she starts to see evidence that her mother’s chronic mental illness isn’t the family’s real disease, but rather her father’s despotism. A serial philanderer, he is also maniacally controlling, physically abusing Margaret. At a neighborhood party, he’s discovered having sex with a local’s wife and unashamedly laughs off the indiscretion. While he’s capable of great sweetness, he can mercurially shift in an instant. Margaret finally asserts herself and demands a divorce, but she’s infinitely forgiving and terrified to be alone. Disgusted by her father, DG plots with her mother to find a way to decisively liberate herself from the clenched grip of his cunning dominion.
Watkins relates the entire story from DG’s first-person perspective, masterfully capturing her shifting voice from early childhood to her teens. Still, the novel’s principal strength is its beautifully conceived characters: DG and her mom are both infinitely loving but deeply wounded, and Alcide is incorrigibly unpredictable, by turns a tyrant and a charmer: “The best way to describe him is like a lighthouse beacon. As long as you are in the warmth of his regard, it seems the best place to be. Safe and bright and beautiful. Outside of his regard, there might be monsters—cold, dark, scary.” The author’s writing is self-assured and nuanced, and even in DG’s youth one can detect her precocious intelligence. In addition, the cumbersome weight of the girl’s premature domestic obligations in the absence of a responsible parent is shatteringly depicted. On two occasions, Margaret summons DG to drive a vehicle illegally—in the second instance, to help break her out of a rest home. (Margaret even provides elaborate instructions on how to look older.) One minor criticism: DG’s siblings are resigned to the background, a largely mute supporting cast. Giving them more life and agency could have furnished a fuller perspective on the family’s emotional fragility as well as Margaret’s neurasthenic stupor. Nevertheless, this is a powerful drama that impressively manages to both haunt and inspire.
An affecting portrayal of an emotionally abandoned girl.