The town of Red Bluff, Mississippi, has seen better days, though those who’ve held on have little memory of when that was. Myer, the county’s aged, sardonic lawman, still thinks it can prove itself — when confronted by a strange family of drifters, the sheriff believes that the people of Red Bluff can be accepting, rational, even good. The opposite is true: this is a landscape of fear and ghosts, of regret and violence, transformed by the kudzu vines that have enveloped the hills around it, swallowing homes, cars, rivers, and hiding a terrible secret deeper still. Colburn, a junkyard sculptor who’s returned to Red Bluff, knows this pain all too well, though he too is willing to hope for more when he meets and falls in love with Celia, the local bar owner. The Deep South gives these noble, broken, and driven folks the gift of human connection while bestowing upon them the crippling weight of generations. With broken histories and vagabond hearts, the townsfolk wrestle with the evil in the woods, and the wickedness that lurks in each and every one of us…
Outside of my love of crime fiction, I am also a fan of American fiction, and more particularly the canon of authors who write within the Southern gothic genre, so writers such as William Faulkner, Daniel Woodrell, Frank Bill et al. Having been completely blown away by Farris Smith’s last book The Fighter I then backtracked and read all of his previous books. What a writer he is. So, it was with immeasurable delight, as I’m sure you can imagine, that Blackwood was received, and quickly read…
Farris Smith is for my money one of the finest contemporary American writers, and has a natural talent for encompassing big emotional themes in a relatively compressed page count. This book focusses very much on what is termed small town America, where sins of the past acquire a mythical status, and, by the same token continue to infuse the sensibility of the present. The key protagonist Colburn, a man returning to his hometown of Red Bluff, encompasses the veracity of this theme, as the local populace, in particular local lawman Myer begin to remember the traumatic event of Colburn’s youth. Throughout the book Colburn’s every action is influenced by this event, leading him ever closer to despair, and compounded by present day events with ramifications for those he has made a connection with, the book sucks us deeper and deeper into his personal darkness. In fact, aside from Myer, pretty much every character in this book seems to be descending into some kind of personal insanity leading to murder, acts of violence, a recognition of the malign influence of the supernatural or a feeling of disconnect on a human level with those around them. Colburn only makes one meaningful connection, but inevitably this becomes tainted too.
I found the characterisation in this book incredibly powerful and the way that the author imbues each character with a sense of victimhood worked on a real emotional level. There seemed to be a real sense of the weak and the strong, but with Farris Smith blurring the lines between the two with ease. Equally, the day to day lives and routines of this claustrophobic town, and those that live within it gave a real texture and richness to the book, with petty rivalries, unfaithfulness, and an overarching feel of suppressed violence.
What really stood out for me in this book was the author’s integration of both the beauty and malevolence of the natural world. The passages of description of the verdant landscape, tainted by the trailing tendrils of the kudzu vines, added a real texture and atmosphere, becoming ever more threatening in parallel to the deepening darkness of the central plot itself. This continual feel of the natural world impinging on each character, or determining their actions was so beautifully portrayed that I began to feel a genuine sense of fear. As the natural world encroaches more and more on the psyche of those seeking shelter, and, at times, redemption within its grasp, it also seems to arouse in others an even more heightened motivation to commit evil deeds.
Blackwood is not an easy read as there is a feel of unremitting sadness about the book as whole, with only slight interludes of humans making any meaningful connections to one another. But I loved it. There are passages of sublime description, stoked with a resonance of our small place in the natural world, and also the sheer folly of some our actions toward others. I was genuinely moved in parts, enraged by others, as we are drawn into this world of damaged individuals, hell-bent on destruction or looking for redemption, or more simply, affection. Powerful and beautifully written. Highly recommended.
(With thanks to No Exit Press for the ARC)
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