Month: July 2010

Snaketown

The short chapters of Kathleen Wakefield’s Snaketown read like a series of microscope slides. Ostensibly the story of a family’s search for a missing child, the novella also serves as a naturalist study of life in off-the-grid rural America. On every page, the author examines the relationship between setting and character, between the barren landscape of a largely abandoned mining town and its denizens, and, ultimately, between the world and humanity.

Snaketown begins with the disappearance of Caytas Buck, the youngest child of the Sibel clan, an allegedly inbred family scraping by on government handouts and odd jobs in their own little closed-in corner of the universe. “They seem confined within boundaries,” Wakefield writes of the Sibels in the precise diction of a sociologist or anthropologist, “as if on an island where only certain things grow, other things three-toed instead of five, winged instead of gilled, the Sibels moving within a range of their own isolation, their own limitations, the roads narrowing, the slant of the sun, their valley, their bend of the river, hogbacks, Mingus Mountain.” Even the disappearance of Caytas does little to bring the family out of their isolation as a mix of destitution, alcoholism, religion, and (curiously) pride keeps them from interacting with the outside world. Indeed, one thing that makes Snaketown so enchanting is Wakefield’s uncanny ability to move seamlessly from the perspective of the Sibels to that of outsiders, thus giving her readers a complex, layered vision of the family and its tragic relationship with the world at large.

To describe the novella solely as a naturalist study, however, is to do it somewhat of an injustice. While the first two-thirds of the book linger largely (and poetically) on the Sibels and their history in relation to Snaketown, the last third of the book sees the narrative morph into something of a page-turner, with the Sibels and the local sheriff racing against the clock and each other to discover what really happened to the missing Caytas. Blending hints of John Steinbeck and Deliverance, Snaketown is that rare gem of a book that is both poetic and gripping — not necessarily a “fun” read, but certainly thought-provoking, heart-felt, and compelling.

The Last Estate

In The Last Estate, Conor Bowman presents a coming of age tale that, like many other examples from the genre, hinges on forbidden love and the tension between fathers and sons. What separates this tale from others like it, however, is the setting: Provence in the wake of World War I. Though he lives in Ireland, Bowman has, according to his  bio, spent “countless summers” in France — and those summers have had a profound effect upon his imagination, for the South of France comes alive in all of its verdant glory throughout the novel.

In addition to bringing the landscapes of Provence to life, Bowman is also adept at bringing the vast and irregular geography of the human heart to life as well — so it’s no coincidence that one of the lovers in this tale is herself a geography teacher. The novel recounts the story of a teenage student named Christian Aragon as he falls in love with Vivienne Pleyben, the young wife of an abusive husband who has (as the novel commences) fled France to avoid conscription into the Great War. As Christian’s love for his geography teacher grows, so too does his sense of independence. His father, it turns out, is interested only in molding his son into a younger version of himself and wishes solely for Christian to take over the family vineyard. Though his own plans for the future are fuzzy at best, Christian knows at the very least that the last thing he wants is to take over the family business.

What’s especially interesting about The Last Estate is witnessing the maturation of the narrator. Early on, when speaking of his love for Vivienne, a young Christian explains, “If someone crept up on me in the middle of the night and nailed my hands to the bedpost and told me not to see her again, I would gnaw my hands off at the elbow and run to her with my limbs trailing blood through this tiny village.” Needless to say, young Christian has a flare, like most teens, for the melodramatic. Yet as Christian grows older, this flare turns to introspection, to the point where a more mature Christian can reflect on relationships of an entirely different stripe: “Families are the great marketplace, where all members trade on an ongoing basis, sometimes for great loss and little gain.” And as Christian comes of age, the novel takes on depth and significance. We are all, in some ways, beholden to the past, Bowman suggests throughout his novel — even if the only form that relationship takes is the conscious decision to break away from all that has gone before us.