REVIEW: Karen White excels with Southern drama ‘A Long Time Gone’

Jun. 07, 2014 @ 11:28 AM

SUMMER READING: The staff of The Herald-Sun Books section will share our recommendations for great summer reading all summer long.

“A Long Time Gone” (NAL, hardcover, $25.95) is Karen White’s best novel to date. It’s hard to explain exactly why, but if you’ve read her other work and then pick up this one, you’ll see. The relationships are more fraught. Mississippi is more vivid. Emotions are not just at the surface, but above it. Details bring you further into the story. And White’s writing draws you into small-town Mississippi in 1927 before the flood and in 2013 when another storm unearths a body buried long ago. “A Long Time Gone” has characters who are each intriguing, likeable and unlikeable, sometimes all on the same page.
Take it as a beach read if you want, though it’s not set on the shore. Use your vacation reading to escape and immerse in this world White has so deftly created. It’s so real that it’s hard to leave at the end.
The story begins with Vivien’s return to her Mississippi childhood home after a bad marriage and failed relationship with her step-daughter, Chloe. Vivien left nine years earlier and didn’t look back. With nowhere else to go, she heads home to see her grandmother, Bootsie, who raised her since her mother, Carol Lynne, came and went. Instead she finds that Bootsie died and Carol Lynne, now with dementia, remains. Her brother Tommy is there, too.
Vivien is flawed but doesn’t want to be, yet she is reluctant to take the steps that will lead to her own happiness. She wants to blur it all out with prescription pills. However, those bones in the yard under the cypress tree change her plans -- not that she had any. Chloe shows up, forcing her to confront herself. And childhood friend Tripp is still around, too.
Alternating between Vivien in 2013, and her great-grandmother Adelaide in 1927, we see two Mississippis and two tales told in the same house. They are separated only by time. One of the most intriguing characters is Mathilda, who appears first in Adelaide’s stories as a young girl, the African-American daughter of a house maid, who has little control over her life minding the self-centered Sarah Beth. The friendship between Adelaide and Sarah Beth is an interesting one. It seems like Sarah Beth is the dominant friend, but maybe not. She’s trouble for sure. Sarah Beth is a wild flapper of the 1920s, a banker’s daughter who pushes every limit. Adelaide falls in love with local jeweler John, who also has a very Prohibition-era side job. This all occurs on the cusp of the Mississippi River flood of 1927. There’s more than one person “chasing ghosts.”
The drama is real, and the humor, too. The storytelling is a great example of the reputation of Southern storytellers. Although White has written several novels, this is her second hardcover, and each new book is better than the last. She’ll come through the Triangle on her book tour for a stop at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh at 7:30 p.m. June 12.

On Twitter: @dawnbvaughan