Historical novels can founder when history blooms from invention and sentiment rather than vice versa. But with care and erudition, they bring the past to life with more immediacy than nonfiction. A new young author with strong North Carolina connections knows how it's done.
With her preternaturally mature debut THE STORY OF LAND AND SEA (Harper Collins, Aug. 26), which reportedly had major houses tripping over themselves to publish it after the Frankfurt Book Fair, 28-year-old Katy Simpson Smith makes a persuasive bid to join the ranks of Hilary Mantel and Marilynne Robinson—people who have informed visions of history and the writing gifts to make them sing.
Though Smith lives in New Orleans, her connection to N.C. is twofold. Before earning an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, she got her Ph.D. in History from UNC-Chapel Hill, and her novel takes place in the coastal town of Beaufort.
Set in the waning days and aftermath of the American Revolution, the book sounds large themes of familial duty, religious faith, grief and race relations, tracing a fine web of personal relationships across three generations. It's a rich but compressed portrait of the United States at a time when economic power was shifting toward cities, away from rural towns such as Beaufort—a place the ocean is eating bite by tiny bite.
The author tells her story like a historian works: backwards. She sifts down through sediment layers of time as if the present were only comprehensible in the context of its causes.
In Part One, 10-year-old Tabitha, whose mother Helen died in childbirth, contracts Yellow Fever. Her father John, a pirate and colonial soldier who gave up the sea after Helen's death, puts Tabitha on a Bermuda-bound schooner, hoping that the climate will cure her. He is beset by his resentful father-in-law, the plantation owner Asa.
Part Two doubles back to the childhood of Helen, when she began a turbulent friendship with a slave called Moll that still reverberates in Part Three, which picks up where Part One left off, exploring John's relationship with Moll's young son, Davy.
Through these trembling strands of connection, Smith shows how the blunt force of war scatters the delicate machinery of human relationships, though the latter prove more resilient when the dust settles again.
Smith's 18th century feels credible because she portrays it in a style that suits its exigencies. Spartan, lyrical prose chimes in tune with austere times, wringing beauty from hard-bitten straits. Beaufort, emaciated by urban migration and war, seems marked for the same fate as the crab shell Tabitha touches by the sea and then leaves "for the waves to eat again," but Smith stays alert to the ravishing land: bobolinks landing in salt marshes, sandpipers browsing mudflats, sumacs turning fiery red in autumn.
And the characters avoid anachronistic winks, info-dumps and just-so stories for contemporary readers. They don't seem to know that they're in a historical novel—refreshing for a genre where people can sound like they're reciting Wikipedia entries.
Though the low-key plotting won't grab everyone, fans of historical fiction—or of prose that favors the muted sparkle of artfully rendered small moments over flashy broad strokes—should stow away with Smith before she docks in local harbors next month, with readings at McIntyre's (Sept. 13), Flyleaf Books (Sept. 15), The Regulator (Sept. 16) and Quail Ridge Books (Sept. 17).
Another N.C. expat recently released an aquatically titled novel, and while it could hardly be more unlike The Story of Land and Sea, it also uses an archaeology of the past to make sense of a tangled present. The difference is that the excavation is personal rather than historical, and engenders a bewildered swirl rather than linear clarity.
In David Connerley Nahm's ANCIENT OCEANS OF CENTRAL KENTUCKY (Two Dollar Radio, Aug. 12), Leah is a social worker in Crow Station, Kentucky. When a man shows up claiming to be Jacob, the brother who vanished when they were young, it uncorks a torrent of childhood memories that forms the most enchanting substance of the book. It's a ghost story about the ghosts of stories.
Nahm was raised in Kentucky and now practices law in Virginia, but he used to live in the Triangle; locals know him as the lead singer, guitarist and songwriter of the art-pop band Audubon Park. Nahm's writing here resembles his band's haywire lyricism (sample: "Our chiming eyes climb like vines / in the coded cracks of the crumbling cement")—heavy on alliterative or repetitive structures and hodgepodge similes.
A telegraphic, temporally jumpy structure makes the plot slow to suss out. Leah exists in a kind of Proustian overdrive, memories blazing up from her drab life, and we're buffeted by out-of-context dreams, stories and scenes. In this way, the book resembles Carole Maso's gorgeous AVA, where we experience a dying woman's memories coming unstuck from referents, but it lacks something of Maso's uncanny control.
Nahm is best at building dioramas from vivid details: rough boys at a rural fair, whose pockets conceal "eye droppers of gin," go to a graveyard to piss on the first angel statue they can find. And he apprehends the paradoxical sharpness and remoteness of memory: the "racing trapezoids" of headlights zooming through a childhood bedroom, immortally crisp and fixed, versus the "sliver of melody" that slips, irretrievable, from mind.
The writing is often good, but self-consciously so—we feel written at rather than for as the story dims behind affectations of style. Though poets Anne Carson and Maggie Nelson are cited as influences, phrases such as "her morning's mouth yawned" and "dew limned lawns" suggest some David Foster Wallace in the soup. Nahm's equivocation between fiction and prose poetry can land in limbo—devices such as "Growing grass grows. Crying children cry. Dying butterflies die" feel neither here nor there.
As the rhetorical mode whirls from Biblical to impressionist to twee, it becomes overbearing, though it houses cunning wonders. One expects more roundly successful things to come from Nahm, who reads at the Regulator on Aug. 28, if he purges this first book's trying-too-hard quality.
New York Times bestselling author Ann B. Ross, a former UNC-Asheville literature teacher who lives in Hendersonville, returns with her 16th "Miss Julia" novel. The series dishes on the soapy intrigues of an upright Presbyterian widow in an eccentric, fictional N.C. town.
The twist: In ETTA MAE'S WORST BAD-LUCK DAY (Viking, Aug. 19), Miss Julia takes a backseat to the down-at-heel Etta Mae, who schemes to wed a rich, elderly man as nosy relatives and neighbors get in her way. "I'm not in the habit of talking about people, listening to gossip, or spreading rumors," Miss Julia writes in her introductory letter. Don't believe it for a second.
In BEWILDERMENT OF BOYS (Backbone Books, April 24), Charlotte's Karon Luddy follows up on 2007's Spelldown, a YA novel about the triumphs and travails of 13-year-old spelling bee contestant Karlene in '60s South Carolina. Four years later, Karlene's older sister is preggers, her beau has joined the Navy and her songwriting partner is about to be drafted into Vietnam. Karlene's credibly folksy but literary voice makes things palatable for adults as well as teens.
In "Pray for Newtown," Sun Kil Moon's Mark Kozelek sings, with chilling accuracy, "There were shootings in a Portland mall / It was everyday America and that's all." How did we come to a pass where mass shootings are fixtures of life, not big news? A pair of Duke academics, economist Philip J. Cook and political scientist Kristin A. Goss, anatomize the answer THE GUN DEBATE: WHAT EVERYONE NEEDS TO KNOW (Oxford University Press, May 1).
Using an accessible Q&A format, they deal out the facts of gun policy, ownership, industry, law and crime. Do buy-back programs work? What's the connection between gun violence and mental illness? Are video games making our kids kill? The authors leave no trigger un-pulled, bringing an admirable depth of research and statistical clarity to an emotional debate.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Water works."