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By John Milliken Thompson. Other Press. 400 pages. $15.95
Thursday, August 15, 2013
John Milliken Thompson’s “Love and Lament” delivers far more than I expected, and with the gentle subtleties of a young Southern woman’s voice. Even as I read with a critical eye, I found myself drawn to the novel’s honesty.
Knowing Thompson lives in Charlottesville and set his novel in the North Carolina Blue Ridge, I found myself longing for sweeping descriptions of landscape to frame the lives of his characters’ suffering. I spent the early part of the novel wishing for less lament and a bit more love. I questioned a male writer’s ability to see through the eyes of a woman as she grew from a naive 5-year-old into a woman in her early 30s. I began to formulate my negative review even as I continued to read.
Then it happened. I found myself in love with this novel of grief, passion and enduring family bonds.
“Love and Lament” tells the story of the Hartsoe clan from 1893 until the days following the armistice of World War I. Though written in third person, clearly the narrative view is that of the independent, strong-willed but guilt-ridden Mary Bet. The first half of the novel seems a bit episodic, lacking the richness of detail I had hoped to find. As the novel moves into Mary Bet’s adulthood and into her insatiable desire to make sense of her life, I found myself transported to a place in my own history, my own struggles with grief and love.
What seemed to me at first a lack of detail became more clearly the way we remember our past. We remember our mistakes, our losses, our unrequited desires, not with grand detail but in what poet Robert Browning called “spots of time.”
The novel does not lie to the reader. Some die young, some survive. Shame can be as destructive a force as death. Growing old without changing is as real a concern for us as it is to Mary Bet. A daughter’s relationship with her father is a pivotal part of who she becomes.
As I moved ever closer to the end of the novel, I realized it was far less important to me how it ended. I knew Mary Bet would have to make some choices, and I trusted her completely.
“Love and Lament” is the best novel I have read in a couple of years. Luckily, I have not yet read Thompson’s first novel, “The Reservoir.” I am just not ready to leave his literary world yet.
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