Badlands

I will gush in this review because I must. I read the last sentence of Badlands by Cynthia Reeves and could say nothing other than, “Oh my God.” I was challenged by this novella. I was mystified. I was enchanted, and I was taken in. But most of all, I was moved.

Badlands depicts the last hours in the life of Caroline Singleman, an erstwhile aspiring archaeologist who traded in her dream of uncovering Eden to raise a family with her husband, Daniel. Wracked with cancer, Caroline’s mind drifts from memories of her days in the field to hallucinations of the Lakota who perished in the Battle of Wounded Knee to moments of acute clarity in the here and now with Daniel and their children. Daniel, meanwhile, is struggling with his own ambivalence toward Caroline’s slow, tragic passing even as he discovers new details about his wife and her nearly forgotten past.

Given the subject matter, it only makes sense that this book offers some very heavy reading. At the same time, though, the hypnotic, dreamlike narrative coupled with Reeves’ poetic mastery of language makes for a transcendent reading experience. Stylistically, Badlands feels like a not-to-distant cousin of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway or, in its more poetic passages, Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Throughout, Reeves demonstrates that she can stand her ground with either of these literary giants.

A key theme in Badlands is the passage of time. Or, more accurately, the struggle, in the author’s words, to “pinpoint the moment one thing became another.” What, the novella dares to ask, is the difference between the past and the present? Where does yesterday end and today begin? It’s a conundrum that Reeves depicts with stunning clarity via Caroline’s obsession with the massacred Lakota, yet it’s the protagonist own gradual march toward her inevitable end that puts the finest point on the issue.

At some point, we’ll all face death. At some point, we’ll all experience the moment of crossing over, of changing from one thing into another. It’s what we do with all of those other moments — all of those “becomings,” all of those transformations from one day to the next — that matters, the novel all but cries out. Life happens in the interstices of time, yet it’s only in retrospect, only as we stitch together the aggregate impressions of memory, that we manage to make sense of it all.

All told, Badlands is a complex, beautiful, moving book from an author who understands better than most what it means to be human.

Review by Marc Schuster.

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