on February 7th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Crime, Gothic, Literary
Format: Electronic ARC
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Maben’s life has been plagued with bad relationships and addiction. She and her young daughter are making the long journey back to her hometown of McComb, Mississippi, in hopes of a second chance. Low on cash, Maben nearly slips back into old habits to make a few bucks. She stops herself at the last second, but there’s someone watching from the shadows ready to exploit her moment of weakness.
Around the same time Maben arrives in town, Russell Gaines is back home after serving eleven years in the state penitentiary. He considers his debt to society paid in full, but there are people not ready to let him off so easily.
The clouds had been gathering in him for a long time now and the storm had arrived. Snuck up on him the way that they sneak up in the summertime with the heavy gray clouds appearing in the western sky and then moving in like vultures and bringing lightning and wind and sometimes there isn’t even time to close the windows. The clouds had been gathering and somebody was going to fucking pay.
“Rough lives get rougher.” These characters have been to hell and back. The story is dark and gritty. In the first 15%, there’s prostitution, rape, death, assault, and a flashback to a tragic drunk driving accident. The story moves along at a deliberate pace, matching the slow and easy pace of the small town. The characters’ pasts are a mystery at first, but all is revealed eventually. There’s a constant tension in the air, because it feels like these characters are heading towards tragedy. The setting was brilliantly drawn. I was able to picture the Mississippi landscapes so vividly in my mind. I grew up in a swampy part of the Gulf Coast, 282 miles/4 driving hours away from McComb. In fact, it’s mentioned that Maben’s little girl was conceived in my hometown! So many aspects of the town felt like home: dingy buildings in various states of disrepair, old trucks, good ‘ol boys, mosquitoes, humidity, and the marshy forest buzzing with wildlife.
She had discovered that once things started to go bad they gathered and spread like some wild, poisonous vine, a vine that stretched across the miles and the years from the shadowy faces she had known to the lines she had crossed to the things that had been put inside her by strangers. It spread and stretched until the vine had consumed and covered her, wrapping itself around her ankles and around her thighs and around her chest and around her throat and wrists and sliding between her legs and as she looked down at the girl with her sunburned forehead and her thin arms she realized that the child was her own dirty hand reaching out of the thicket in one last desperate attempt to grab on to something good.
This author excelled making it easy to root for characters that didn’t always make the best decisions. Eventually, I even felt a small bit of empathy for a character who terrorizes Russell:“he would rage against the most striking object of his hate and he would look into the rearview mirror and see that object staring back at him and it was easy to hate the other things but it was always the most crippling to hate himself.” Most of our time is spent with Russell and Maben, but the author slips seamlessly into the minds of several supporting characters. Even minor townspeople we only meet in passing have distinct personalities. The characters prefer to deal with their biggest problems on their own. Russell refuses help from both his dad and an old buddy from high school. Maben’s been burned too many times to think that anyone would help her without a cost.
He had not set out for redemption. Not once thought about it in the years and months and weeks and days that led up to the moment he would be free. But he seemed to have stumbled upon its possibility … and he kept saying and kept thinking that he had paid and paid some more and he was free and clear but there was something uncomfortable in his gut now that made that sentiment feel less and less like a conclusion.
Russell repeatedly says that he’s done his time, but he says it so much that it seems like he’s trying to convince himself. He doesn’t hesitate when the chance for redemption falls in his lap, even at great risk to his own freedom. One of my favorite scenes was a discussion he had with the prison’s preacher about grace. He doesn’t understand how men who have committed terrible crimes get redemption, while their victims struggle to get through the day. The priest wonders if maybe Russell is trying to make himself feel better about his own sins. The characters also wrestle with moral gray areas. Sometimes it’s not as simple as right and wrong and the line between good and bad isn’t so clear cut. Can something that’s wrong on the surface sometimes be a mercy? Can doing what’s technically the wrong thing be the most ethical course?
“Bad shit happens to good people,” he said when she was done.
“Nah. I ain’t a good person. Bad shit happens to everybody,” she said. “I wish to God it’d take a break when you’re trying, though.”
Both Maben and Russell suffer from the heavy burden of guilt. They want a second chance, but they have to forgive themselves first. Maben’s hopes for a second chance are dashed almost as soon as she arrives in town. She knows no one will believe her story. The people who are terrorizing Russell don’t seem to want to stop until he’s dead. How will these two escape their desperate situations? I wasn’t sure that they would. This book deals with some unsavory characters and heavy issues, but I really liked spending a little time in Mississippi each night. I’d love to read more of this author’s work!