A few weeks ago, Gail Whitiker wrote about slow beginnings, books that don’t necessarily open with dramatic action but slowly invite you in by taking their time, establishing a mood and setting a scene. When Gail’s blog went live, I happened to be reading A LONG TIME GONE by Karen White. In spite of the fact that this contemporary novel started off more slowly than I’m used to, I was hooked on page one. And much of it had to do with the author’s voice.
Here is her beginning:
I was born in the same bed that my mama was born in, and her mama before her, and even further back than anybody alive could still remember. It was as if the black wood of the bedposts were meant to root us Walker women to this place of flat fields and fertile soil carved from the great Mississippi. But like the levees built to control the mighty river, it never held us for long.
We were born screaming into this world, the beginning of a lifelong quest to find what would quiet us. Our legacy was our ability to coax living things from fallow ground, along with a desperate need to see what lay beyond the delta. A need to quell a hurt whose source was as unexplainable as its force.
Whatever it was that drove us away was never stronger than the pull of what brought us back. I returned in the spring, nearly nine years to the day after I’d left.
There’s no dialogue or action. At first glance, it appears to be a fairly static start. Yet the voice of the narrator is incredibly strong and pulls me in. It allows me time to absorb the setting of the south: the flat fields, the fertile soil, the great Mississippi. The levees and the delta. It gives me rich imagery as I think of someone coaxing living things from fallow ground. I’m enticed by numerous power words too: mighty, control, screaming, desperate, force, pull. I learn in those first few paragraphs that this is a story about generations of women. Loud women who come screaming into the world with a desperate need to quell an unknown hurt. And one of them has come back after being away for nine years.
White’s book unspooled in such a compelling way (there was romance, there was mystery, it was both contemporary and historical) that I found myself thinking about her plot, her characters, and about the intensity of her voice long after I finished. In fact, I was driven to pick up THE TIME BETWEEN, also by Karen White, simply to see if there were any similarities in voice. Here’s the first paragraph of that novel:
The first time I died was the summer I turned seventeen. I remember the air being so hot you could smell the pluff mud baking in the sun, the scent sulfur-sweet and strong enough to curl your toes, the tall stems of sweet grass listless, their tips bowed in submission. Blood sat like melted copper in my open mouth as I rose above my broken body, splayed like a rag doll beside the dirt road. Let me go, I thought as I hovered, weightless. But I felt the pull of a gossamer thread of conscience and retribution that tethered me to this earth. Before I heard the screams of the sirens and my mother’s wailing, I knew I wouldn’t stay dead for long.
There’s that unmistakeable Southern setting (hot air and pluff mud and sweet grass), the link of family (her mother), strong imagery (blood sat like melted copper in my open mouth; splayed like a rag doll) and more power words, some of them nearly identical to the words used in her previous novel (strong, pull, screams, wailing, died, blood, broken, retribution).
I’ve only just started THE TIME BETWEEN so I can’t tell you how the story unfolds. But based on this opening, and on A LONG TIME GONE, I’m expecting a very good read.