The River Witch
By Kimberly Brock
Publisher: Bell Bridge Books
Release Date: April 6, 2012
I don’t read a lot of debut authors. Their absence from my annual list of books read has nothing to do with prejudice against beginning authors and everything to do with the number of authors who are autobuys for me and the limited number of books I am able to read. The debut authors I do read tend to be friends or friends of friends. Less frequently, I will read a debut author who comes highly recommended by someone whose opinion about books I respect. Most of these books are romance fiction. Recently I read a rare debut book that falls in none of these categories. It is a Southern novel that seduced me with its cover copy, and it gets two thumbs up from me and a notation in my reading journal to keep an eye out for the next book from this author.
Thirty-year-old Roslyn Byrne is facing a season of loss. First, a short-term affair with a man who “wasn’t a bad man, but . . . was a plain bad choice” ends with his going home to his wife. A short time later, Roslyn suffers injuries in an automobile accident that end her career with the Atlanta Ballet Company. While she is in the hospital recovering, her maternal grandmother, an influential figure in her childhood, dies. Several months later, she loses a baby and her sane, cynical hold on reality. Her mother, fearful that Roslyn will retreat to the Byrne home place in Glenmary, Tennessee, persuades her to travel to Manny’s Island, an isolated spot in the marshlands off the eastern coast of St. Simon’s, one of Georgia’s Golden Isles. Broken and scarred in body and spirit, Roslyn will find in this mystical, unfamiliar place the healing she needs to integrate all the parts of who she is and become healthy and whole.
The house Roslyn rents and the twelve acres on which it stands belong to Urey Trezevant. Over the months Roslyn spends on the island, she forms connections with the mysterious Urey and his young daughter Damascus, named for the river that borders their property. Like Roslyn, they are people who have known a loss so grievous that they remain among the walking wounded. Urey’s sister, Ivy Trezevant Cain, who is hungry for a life larger than the one she has on the island, becomes Roslyn’s friend, as does her teenage son, a charmer known as JB. Ivy’s husband, Will, provides a way for Roslyn to share a part of her Byrne legacy. Each of them, along with Nonnie, the old conjure woman who has a vision concerning Roslyn purpose on Manny’s Island, and Otis, the stubborn old farmer who knows checkers and pumpkin husbandry, has something to teach Roslyn.
From Roslyn and Damascus, the point of view characters, to the minor characters, even those who people the book only as memories, Brock creates a cast of crazy-quilt personalities of shifting colors, contradictory impulses, and secrets hidden sometimes even from those who possess them. They challenge the mind and touch the heart. I found Damascus, part lost child and part old soul, particularly appealing. She reminded me of other girl children in cherished Southern novels, characters like Carson McCullers’s Frankie and Harper Lee’s Scout.
Brock proves in this lovely, lyrical novel filled with music, natural and perhaps supernatural, that the conventions of southern literature can still be used with grace, power, and freshness by a twenty-first century Southern writer. The past is a vital force that impinges on the present, place as presented in the present of Manny’s Island and the mythic time of Glenmary is as rich and vibrant a presence as any character, family ties that can sustain and imprison—these qualities and more place Brock in the tradition of Southern literature. Hers is an exceptional debut. The River Witch is a beautiful book, haunting and unforgettable. I rank it with the best of contemporary Southern fiction.
I reiterate for my friends who read only romance fiction, be advised that this is not a romance. I highly recommend The River Witch, but it does not have a conventional HEA, although the ending is neither depressing nor confusing.
What’s the last book by a debut author that made you want to share its wonder with all your reading friends?