Monday, August 27, 2012

Tuesday Review: The River Witch

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?


PJ Ausdenmore said...

Oh, Janga, this sounds wonderful! I've been hungering for a good Southern Fiction novel. I'm getting this one today!

The debut books from Tessa Dare and Kaki Warner had me telling everyone I knew - and many I didn't - that they should buy the books, and all future books, by these amazingly talented authors.

Janga said...

It really is a lovely book, PJ. I think you'll enjoy it. Let me know what you think.

Yes to Tessa Dare and Kaki Warner as terrific debutantes! :) They both wrote sensational debut books, and they have followed them with others equally wonderful.

Sara Grambusch said...

I really enjoyed this book! Such a sweet Southern tale. I almost exclusively read debut authors. It's just so exciting ;)

Susan in AZ said...

oh, wow. Sounds like a great book. I'm inhaling another debut: Crux by Moira Rogers. Yummmm. No calories.

quantum said...

I'm not sure what exactly characterises a southern novel, but this sounds a good one for testing the water.

The last début novel that I read was Moriah Densley's 'Song for Sophia'. It's a brilliant novel about a tortured savant. I won it as a prize which makes it even better value!

Not quite a début novel, but for a story set around the isle of Skye, off the west coast of Scotland, Linda Gillard's 'Star Gazing' wins accolades from me. I believe it will soon be made into a film. I will definitely view that as well!

Janga said...

Sara, I agree that discovering a debut author can be exciting, and I'm delighted I read The River Witch. But some of my autobuy authors have been giving me books that I love to read for more than twenty years. I can't miss those books, and I've been a series addict since childhood.

Janga said...

Susan, I hope you give The River Witch a try. Thanks for stopping by.

Janga said...

I think you would find this one interesting, Q, and reading it would show you the sense of place, family ties, spiritual elements, etc. that are characteristic of much Southern literature.

I checked out Star Gazing. It sounds fascinating. I'll have to see if my library has it since the Kindle price is $10.