Books: All the Living

Some books enchant, others repel. The other day I closed a book after 30 pages and drove it directly back to the library branch it had been borrowed from. I pulled an illegal u-turn and parked in a tow zone, risking all to be rid of it. Clunky writing, horrific story; thank you, no!

Another, by a lauded literary writer, had an interesting set up but was so poorly told I pressed it on a writer friend as a great example of a how not to tell a story.

Why keep reading?

cov_all_the_livingWhen we open a book, we take a leap. And sometimes we’re rewarded: we’re hooked, we’re grabbed, we’re taken in.

From a stack of newly published books I pulled C.E. Morgan’s “All the Living,” Farrar Straus Giroux, $23. I was nabbed by its first sentence: “She had never lived in a house and now, seeing the thing, she was no longer sure she wanted to.”

She is Aloma, a young woman just out of school, orphaned at a young age, arriving at the tobacco farm her boyfriend, Orren, has come to own.

Sex is their common ground. She’s a trained musician, aching to leave the moment she arrives. He devotes his every hour to saving his family’s farm. When Aloma signs on to play piano for the local church, the pastor quietly, and heartbreakingly, pursues her. It sounds hopelessly old-fashioned, but the book’s most moving passage is when the pastor shames Aloma for leading him on.

It’s a present day story but the world we’re taken into — its language, and foods, and landscape — seems from the near past. Television, but it’s on only for its tornado warnings. Telephones, but no cell phones; no texting, no tweeting. Places to eat, but no fast food. “Don’t be ill” means “don’t be mad.”

There’s no bad guy, no boogie man lurking in the woods. The only menace is the drought, and a mean rooster, and Orren’s buried grief for the family he’s lost.

It’s a Plot 101 tale — will she stay or will she go? — but the quality of the prose kept me reading. A simple story in a remarkable landscape, tightly focused and exquisitely wrought. A model of Aristotle’s unities of time, place and action.

It had me in its grip all weekend.

One response to “Books: All the Living”

  1. Jennifer Miller says:

    Lovely review. Makes me want to read this book and soon.