Monday, April 25, 2011
Book Review - Bloodroot by Amy Greene
Despite the fact that the cover of Amy Greene’s debut novel, Bloodroot, is a dreamy, pastoral image, the story this book tells is dark, brooding, and at times, forbidding. Set in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, Greene shows us a side of Appalachia that many readers would rather forget – a side beset by poverty so pervasive that it begets violence, a violence that spills over from one generation into the next.
Spanning three generations, Bloodroot centers around the high spirited, blue-eyed, black haired Myra Lamb, and Myra is one of the book’s six narrators. The other five are: Myra’s loving grandmother, Byrdie; Myra’s abusive husband, John Odom; Myra’s children, the quiet Laura and the bitter Johnny; and Doug Cotter, a neighbor of Myra’s who falls in love with her. In telling a story that moves from grandmother to mother to granddaughter to that granddaughter’s children, Greene is giving us a portrait of the bonds that children form with their mothers, and how both the good and bad in one generation is handed down to the next.
And even though the book is, for the most part, dark, Bloodroot is filled with rapturous descriptions of the hills and hollows and the glorious, blossoming springs of Appalachia as well as the folk wisdom and “mountain magic” that permeates this isolated area of the world. Greene so obviously loves Appalachia, and that love shows in her book, so much so, that the setting almost functions as a character, itself. I can’t imagine Bloodroot taking place anywhere but where it does. But, as charming and gorgeous as some of Greene’s descriptive passages are, she doesn’t let her readers forget that Bloodroot’s primary concern is a dark one.
We first meet Myra Lamb through the eyes of her grandmother, Byrdie, and through the recollections of Myra’s neighbor, Doug Cotter. It was Byrdie who raised Myra – on Bloodroot Mountain, of course – and it was Doug Cotter who fell in love with her as he and Myra roamed the mountain and the surrounding countryside. “The whole mountain belonged to us,” Doug tells the reader, “and we knew its terrain like our own bodies, every scar and cleft and fold.” Byrdie comes from a long line of women who have special powers – healers, though some called them witches. But Byrdie, even with her special powers, is powerless against Myra’s wild, untamed streak, and compares her to Wild Rose, a wild and untamed, but beautiful, horse. Shy and quiet Doug, too, is powerless against Myra’s wishes once she falls under the spell of the dark and unpredictable John Odom.
Suffice to say that Myra follows her heart, and all does not go well for her. When she gives birth to twins, the above-mentioned Johnny and Laura, she does her best to be a loving mother, but she’s emotionally fragile, and eventually the children end up in the care of others. Laura really tries to keep a low profile and better her lot in life, but Johnny, who is bitter and resentful, acts out. At one point, Johnny hikes up Bloodroot Mountain with a friend who has promised to show him a witch’s house. They come upon a little, dilapidated house, hidden among the trees. Johnny says it looks “like a toy I could hold in both hands, a dirty white box with black window holes and the roof a flake of blood.” Turns out, it’s his childhood home, and the “witch” in question is Myra, his mother. Even though Johnny acts out, it’s easy enough to sympathize with his lot in life, to care about him, even if we don’t agree with his actions.
Although Bloodroot’s primary character is Myra Lamb, we don’t hear from Myra directly until the book’s final section. In some ways, I liked this, and though it added an air of mystery to Myra’s character and to the book. In other ways, I didn’t like it at all. Maybe Greene waited a bit too long to let her readers “hear” from Myra directly. I haven’t decided. I do know Greene layered on the Gothic overtones in Myra’s section, perhaps a bit too heavily, and I like the Southern Gothic tradition of writing. I’m a great fan. I love the grotesque characters created by Flannery O’Conner and the mentally fragile ones created by Faulkner and Tennessee Williams.
The problem for me is that I wanted to know more about Myra. She was captivating, but in my opinion, Greene didn’t allow the reader full enough access to her. Her impact seemed a little blunted by only allowing her to speak in the book’s final section.
To be fair, Myra is mentioned, talked about, remembered, in the first sections by her grandmother, Byrdie, and by Doug Cotter, but since Myra, herself, isn’t permitted “onstage,” some readers won’t be able to really get involved with her. It’s easier to want to get involved with Byrdie or Doug, but the reader will know that’s fruitless, too, because the book isn’t “about” either of them.
Like Byrdie, Myra is possessed of many supernatural abilities; she has “the touch.” I think this might have worked if Myra had been present throughout the entire book, but with her only making an appearance in the book’s last section, I felt this was so much ornamentation. I liked Myra a lot more when she was presented as an ordinary woman trying to escape an extraordinary situation. “It’s not right, what we’ve put on her,” one character says in reference to Myra. “She’s made out of flesh and blood, just like anybody else.” And it’s as a flesh and blood woman that the reader relates to Myra, not as a “witch,” not as someone possessed of magical spells like many of the characters in Alice Hoffman’s books. And while I’m at it, I did not think Bloodroot was reminiscent of Alice Hoffman. Bloodroot is darker and more claustrophobic than anything Hoffman ever wrote. Hoffman’s books have a charm and a much lighter touch than Bloodroot has, and that’s not a criticism of either Hoffman or Greene. I’m just saying that they are different.
So, did I like the book or dislike it? I liked it. Very much so. In fact, I loved it, but then, I'm partial to novels set in Appalachia. No, I didn’t think it was perfect, but I thought it was far better than most of the debut novels out there, even those that are highly touted. Greene’s prose is unadorned, but I felt she wrote with great assurance. The reader, I think, feels he or she can trust the author. One thing that kind of annoyed me at times was the dialect. I know some people in Appalachia speak differently than educated people in cities do, but sometimes, when the dialect is too pronounced, I think it detracts from the story rather than adds to it. For example, Greene’s characters would pronounce “wash” like “worsh.” I grew up in Appalachia myself, and even after I moved away to go to school, I would still spend summers there. I heard some of my own relatives pronounce “wash” like “worsh,” so I knew immediately what Greene was talking about, but other readers, those who’ve spent their entire lives in cities, for example, might have to stop and puzzle over some of the words, and that’s never a good thing. Still, I thought the dialogue had a poetic, and very authentic, Tennessee cadence.
Some readers have told me that they didn’t like the fact the Greene used six narrative voices. I can understand both this complaint and Greene’s use of multiple narrative voices. Most readers do respond best to books that contain only one or two narrators. Many times, the impact of a story is diluted through the use of multiple narrators. However, there are other stories, and I, personally, feel this is one, that demand multiple narrators in order to fully express the range of emotional and thematic material presented. I thought Greene did a good job moving back and forth among her narrators, however, I do have to agree with those readers who felt all six of the narrators sounded pretty much alike and that it was difficult to tell one from the other. In addition, this entire story is "told" rather then being dramatized in scenes. After a while, I started to feel I was being "preached to" and it got a little annoying.
What I didn’t like, and this may be only personal preference, is the fact that in this book, it was only the women who were strong and independent. The men, for the most part, seemed to be jerks. I keep hoping one of them would be different, from the very beginning, but it was not to be. I don’t oppose strong, independent women, but I thought a kind, gentle man here and there would have balanced the book a bit more. Even one kind and gentle man would have sufficed.
I’m not a fan of bleak lives, in real life, but I am a fan of bleak literature, and let’s be truthful, we all have to bear a bit of bleakness now and then. It’s just part of living. Bloodroot more than satisfied my love for bleak literature. The book is chock full of pain and suffering, but to Greene’s credit it’s never pain and suffering for the sake of pain and suffering. The consequences in this book all flow from character, as they should, and those characters are complex, rich, fully realized persons.
I’m also a fan of claustrophobic literature, and I loved the way Greene set her story on Bloodroot Mountain, and in doing so, kept the world at bay. The enormous beauty of the setting was a joy to read, but it also served to highlight the poverty and the violence that was taking place.
Bloodroot is a rather slow paced novel, but I think that fits well with its Southern setting. Not a tremendous lot happens; this is primarily a character driven novel, but I also enjoyed that. Even though I wanted to know more about Myra, I was still able to get totally drawn into the lives of the characters. This is a book that made me feel, rather than making me think, and for me, that’s the best kind of book.
All in all, Bloodroot is a book that will stay with me for a long time to come, and I look forward to Amy Greene’s next novel. She has an amazing talent, and I just hope she continues to set her books in the beautiful Tennessee landscape.
Recommended: Definitely, for those readers who love character driven novels, and love a book with overtones of the Southern Gothic genre.