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Friday, September 14, 2012

What I'm Reading: A Land More Kind Than Home

Yesterday, I reminded you about the Browser's Corner, and working on my review for this book is why it was in the front of my brain.  Let me explain. At our May 29th meeting of the Book Lover's Club Alena said this about A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash:
"This is a debut novel by a southern writer.  This book got a rare five stars from me.  It is about a creepy preacher man in the North Carolina mountains who handles snakes.  Of course he is crooked but no one can prove it.  You have these ugly horrible people and this gorgeous writing.  The action is in 48 hours.  It is not pleasant; there is no hero, there is killing, death and destruction.  But the whole thing ends the way it should end.  Cash is a writer to watch.  I love Southern fiction and religious extremism as a background to novels.  A down and dirty book that has writing that elevates it."
When the Book Lover's Club meets on the last Tuesday of odd numbered months, I take notes on what the participants have to say about the book they have come to share.  We then post the notes on the Browser's Corner, here.  These notes serve as an annotated reading list of patron picks for both the members of the group to go back and look at, and for any one to peruse.  The Book Lover's Club notes on their own are a fabulous RA tool, and they are just one section of The Browser's Corner.

Needless to say, after that description by Alena, I put the book on hold for myself the next day, got it within a week, and finished it right away.  I have to agree with everything she said.

This is a beautifully wrought story that at every turn gives you more than you expected.  The "plot" involves the killing of a mute child at a prayer "healing" by the creepy preacher mentioned above.  But we know from the first pages that the child will die.  Thus, this novel is not about the murder.  It is about rural communities and the intimate links between the people who live there.  And it is about the setting.  In the end this is a story where a drama unfolds, a conflict which has it roots back a generation from the current murder, and once we reach the last page, everything has changed and yet, at the same time, we are back to the way it always was.

That is the general review.  Here are some specific things I want to point out about the appeal of this novel.  I would classify this book as psychological suspense meets Souther Gothic.

First let's look at its psychological suspense aspects. Terrible stuff happens, and we see it unfold from the point of view of the murdered boy's younger brother, the female town elder/midwife [she is the moral center of this community], and its current Sheriff.  The story is bleak and atmospheric. The tension is thick, and I was on the edge of my chair turning the pages with trepidation both wanting, and not wanting, to know what would happen next. It is intricately plotted, with layers overlapping and time frames shifting, but the style adds to the uneasy atmosphere and provides key details to the story.  But again, it is not straight suspense or mystery because the investigation is not part of the story.  The reader knows what happened and why; the murderer is never in question.  The questions come from how people will react.

Second, and probably even more key to whether or not someone will like this novel is its deep roots into the Southern Gothic tradition.  This is a lyrically written novel in which the setting [North Carolina hill country] is a character.  Cash describes the tough landscape and its weathered people, but with an obvious affection.  His love for the place is evident despite the bleakness of the story.

Another key thing in A Land More Kind Than Home is the characterization.  The setting and characters go hand in hand.  Without careful construction of fleshed out characters whose motivations, history, and present situations we truly understand, Cash's carefully constructed novel falls flat.

A Land More Kind Than Home is a novel you experience.  While there is not fast-paced action, the novel's contradiction of the beautiful language with the horrible actions compelled me to stay in my seat and keep reading the pages.  While technically I would classify the novel as leisurely paced, I was so enchanted by the world Cash created that I read it in 2 sittings.

I can't wait to read Cash's second novel.

Three Words That Describe This Book: lyrical, mutliple points of view, atmospheric

Readalike:  Wiley Cash's novel is everything people always claim  John Hart is.  Hart doesn't do it for me as you can see here, but many people do enjoy Hart's North Carolina set suspense novels, so I think he is a good suggestions option for some readers.

But the author Cash most reminds me of is the great Joyce Carol Oates.  Of course, Cash has 1 novel and Oates is one of our greatest living American writers, but I see a lot of Oates in Cash.  A good similar read here would be The Falls.

The Cove by Ron Rash which also came out this spring, is a suspense story which hinges on its North Carolina setting and is probably as close to perfect a match as you could get here.  At the same May 29, 2012 Book Lover's Club, Marilyn had this to say about The Cove:
"I was immediately caught by the cover - a stream with wooded hills on both sides and the back of a woman with long hair wading in the water.  There is a brief introduction by the author which says that during WWI Germans in America were taken to internment camps. It is set in the backwoods of North Carolina.  It starts in the 1930s with a man who is doing a land survey.  He is from out of town and not feeling very welcome.  He finds an abandoned well and pulls out a skull.  Flash back to 1918 where a young sister and brother are trying to run their farm after their parents die.  The sister helps a man who has been stung by wasps and she finds a note in his pocket that says I am a mute and trying to get to New York and that is all I will say…"
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier shares the southern setting, lyrical language, and vivid characterizations with A Land More Kind Than Home. They also share a shifting point of view and a storyline in which characters must come terms with the difficulty of their life situation.

A suggestion that is a little more off the beaten path would be Alden Bell's The Reapers Are the Angels. Like Cash's novel, Bell's is also a psychological suspense story merged with a Southern Gothic feel, only in Bell's novel, the characters inhabit a world where they has been a zombie apocalypse.  Take out the zombies though, and they are remarkably similar stories.

And for a cross format watch alike, the entire time I was reading A Land More Kind Than Home, it kept reminding me of the HBO series Carnivale from the early 2000s.  Both have weird preachers and an atmospheric, odd, bleak, yet beautiful story driven by psychological suspense, setting, and characters.  Go seek out the DVDs for the series if you liked this novel.

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