Monday, February 02, 2009

gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson

gods in alabama is a funny, fast, furious, thunderously entertaining novel. It takes the southern gothic tradition and turns it into something different: just as odd, just as dangerous, but somehow less malevolent. There are freaks here, for sure, and dirty deeds and disagreeable thoughts, and beneath it all is that fundamentalist, unbreakable, entirely contradictory southern spirit, religiously imbued, reactionary-centred. But there is also a lightness of tone which, despite the subject matter, works in a refreshing and even illuminating way.

The focus of the story is Arlene Fleet, our narrator and main protagonist. A lecturer in the north of America, she is in a passionate but platonic relationship with Burr, and African-American lawyer. We find out that she never lies – not ever – and goes to elaborate lengths to ensure that she won’t. For example, in order to tell her aunt she has no money, she buys the most expensive computer she can find. It will be returned to the store the next day and her money refunded, but, just then, in that particular conversation, she could truthfully say she was broke.
Why? Families, families. Arlene has not returned home in ten years and vows that she won’t, even when Burr issues an ultimatum that she must introduce him to her family or they will split up. Clearly, there is some dark secret here.

And, in the course of the novel, that secret begins to emerge. Of course, Arlene and Burr do make the trip back south to meet the folks in Alabama. And it goes as badly as Arlene anticipates. Her family is as freakish a concoction of southern gargoyles as anything from the imagination of Flannery O’Connor, especially the terrifying Aunt Florence and Arlene’s drug-addled, mentally ill mother. Arlene and Burr encounter deep-seated racism and small-town bigotry. Aunt Florence makes it sinisterly plain that she and Arlene ‘have things to discuss’, and things threaten to get out of hand. Gradually, Arlene’s past unfolds, and it is a story of murder and revenge, one which threatens now to overwhelm her.

The story sweeps along at a great pace and proceeds to a clever, satisfying, unexpected conclusion. To be critical, you could argue it is too neatly plotted, and that there is something of the MFA about the way it all resolves so neatly and the characters come to a form of mutual redemption and understanding. But that would be unfair. The novel doesn’t set out to be profound, and yet it covers some emotive ground and makes acute observations about the way we treat one another and the way that our preconceptions can dominate our thinking. The characterisation, particularly of Arlene and Aunt Florence, who are more alike than either of them would ever wish to acknowledge, is extremely good. The dialogue is crisp, witty and convincing. This is a very funny, fast moving and exciting novel. Definitely worth a read.

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