Eric Boss reviews THE PAST IS NEVER
This moody, haunting and affecting story of good and evil in the rural South is presented with great skill and feeling, so much so that the reader experiences alternating horror and joy. A tale of tragedy, revenge, redemption, kindness, yearning to belong and the compulsion to find roots, it is well worthy of the time taken to read, the author reminding us that humans can be both cruel and kind. Using multiple viewpoints and time periods, melancholy, superstition and prejudice emerge as drivers of the struggle to discover mysteries of present and past.
Bert (Roberta), Willet and Pansy are siblings living in the Mississippi delta with a damaged mother and a criminal, absent father. Near their home is an abandoned quarry with a grim past universally acknowledged by the locals as an evil place. Nevertheless, on a steamy summer day they hike there to swim and find relief from the heat. Bert and Willet, the older children, are drawn by hunger into the woods by the prospect of ripe berries while Pansy, a young but fiercely independent youngster remains to float and dream in the still water of the quarry. After gorging on the sweet fruit, they become separated and Bert finds herself disoriented and panicky. She is startled by disturbing noises and a fleeting, almost spectral vision of what she believes is some sort of beast carrying a small bundle through the dense growth. Upon their return to the waterside, Pansy is nowhere to be found. They search as widely as they are able and Willet dives repeatedly until exhausted, but no sign of the girl is to be found. So begins what will become a years-long search for the child who is the admitted favorite of their mother.
What ensues is told in jumps from the present to the past of the principal characters, showing how things came to be as they are. As the brother and sister age into adulthood, their guilt and longing do not diminish. Then a clue is found which sends them on an odyssey to Florida and a change of life for them both.
The evocation of the South and its people, the feelings of family and the brooding atmosphere of rural landscape are the hues employed by this skilled writer to paint a picture that persists in the mind of the reader. The subtle and deftly structured dialogue is genuine and truly evokes the speech of the South with never a slip into patois or dialect, a difficult task masterfully achieved. Aptly compared with Flannery O’Connor and Dorothy Allison, the author has given us a memorable read.
Shelf Talker: Dark and light vie for ascendancy in this brooding novel of the South. Written with great skill, it is a compelling tale that will reward any reader of Dorothy Allison or Flannery O’Connor. A finalist in the competition for the 2019 Colorado Book Awards for literary fiction.