An ex-US soldier's novel about the US Civil War and its aftermath is an ambitious exercise in Southern Gothicby Jane Shilling / May 16, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
Kevin Powers’s first novel, The Yellow Birds, drew on his experience of serving as a US army machine-gunner in Iraq from 2004-5. It attracted critical acclaim, praise from fellow writers Tom Wolfe, Colm Tóibín and Ann Patchett, and prizes including the Guardian First Book Award. His second novel also focuses on the aftermath of conflict, recording the shock waves of the American Civil War as they echo down the decades.
A Shout in the Ruins follows the fortunes of the extended household of a family of small-time slave-owners in Virginia. Bob Reid is a mule-skinner whose only daughter, Emily, born in 1846, grows up with Rawls, the son of her nursemaid, Aurelia. The child Emily proves something of a tyrant, setting her dog on Rawls, her father’s slave.
A century later, 90-year-old George Seldom, whose home is about to be demolished to build a new road, decides to make a last journey to discover his origins. All he knows is that he was found as a toddler, clinging to his murdered mother, with a note pinned to his clothes reading, “Look after me, I now belong to you.” In chapters alternating between the mid-19th century and the mid-20th, Powers explores the tortuous connections that link his vast cast of characters.
This is a narrative in which violence becomes a lingua franca, as familiar in daily life as on the battlefield. Rawls’s big toes are cut off to cure his inveterate habit of absconding; a ferryman is stabbed; there are burnings, lynchings, death by tree fall, ambush, sudden illness and a lone, peaceful demise from natural causes.
Powers’s style is expository, with a tendency to strain for its effects: “Winter had returned to the county like a guest who had forgotten her coat.” With plot-lines sufficient for half-a-dozen novels, and a body count worthy of a Jacobean revenge tragedy, this is an ambitious exercise in modern Southern Gothic.
A Shout in the Ruins by Kevin Powers (Sceptre, £16.99)