In a poetic debut, a little girl is seemingly the only witness to her large family’s truly disturbed behavior. When she’s only three, little Odessa sees the only person who seems to care about her, her grandmother, die, and it all seems downhill from there. Odessa is the youngest child in a big African-American clan that relocated from rural Mississippi to St. Louis for apparently no other reason than that their ill-tempered father could continue picking up the scraps from his more successful brother, Leland, who owned a tavern there. Odessa is not even old enough for school the first time her father sexually abuses her. Even though it’s plenty obvious to her mother, nothing is ever said. The years pass and Odessa becomes more aware of her father’s horrendous, drunken, and violent nature even as she forgets the details of what happened to her. The older she gets, the more her family’s secrets come clear, and eventually the stage is set for a harrowing revelation back under the stultifying Mississippi sun. Lockhart studied under Dorothy Allison, and the influence shows. But even though the novel has echoes—a young girl lost in a welter of lies and abuse set against a hot and humid southern backdrop—it’s a story all Lockhart’s own. Odessa’s voice is a singular one, never too wise for her age but still possessed of a keen perception that brings the hazy memories of childhood into sharp relief.
An impressively mature piece of work.