Wednesday, September 30, 2009
All The Living by CE Morgan
All The Living is a slowly unfolding, melancholic story of southern living, suffused with traditional southern spirit. Set in the present, it could, with its old-time preachers and fundamentalist morality and strict work ethic, have taken place any time in the past hundred years or more. It follows a young, orphaned woman Aloma, who moves in with tobacco farmer Orren in the aftermath of an accident which is often mentioned but little described, but which has killed Orren’s entire family. Together, the couple try to fashion a relationship, while struggling with a drought which threatens their tobacco harvest and with small-scale farming difficulties made more difficult by the lack of available hands, by Aloma’s unproficiency at country living and by Orren’s increasing inability to ask for help. There is, throughout, a sense of claustrophobia, of people enclosed in their small lives, unable not only to escape but even to comprehend that there might be the concept of escape.
The novel begins after the car accident, with Aloma moving in with Orren on his Kentucky farm. They do not, however, move into the new farm house in which Orren and his deceased family had lived, but the older, original farm house, which is running to disrepair and is redolent with – to Aloma – challenging memories of the family’s ancestry. Orren is reluctant to do anything with the new house, or even to visit it; clearly, there is too much emotional weight bearing on it, and the first portents of the difficulties this young couple might encounter are exposed. Gradually, tensions arise. Aloma tries to settle into farm life, teaching herself to cook, helping when she can, but she is not naturally suited to farm life and her frustrations grow. She is a talented pianist, apparently trained to a high standard, but the piano in their house has been neglected beyond repair. She enquires at the local church whether they require a pianist and, although initially rebuffed, she quickly has a chance to show her ability and is engaged on a regular basis. This allows her the opportunity to practice whenever she wants, as long as the minister, Bell, is present, and Aloma relieves the frustrations of her life with the uncommunicative Orren by returning to her first love of playing piano.
What follows, in terms of plot, is slight and somewhat predictable. Her relationship with Orren becomes ever more tense; that with the preacher Bell begins to develop. We are being shepherded to a climax, which we know will come when Aloma’s relationship with Orren, which she has hidden from Bell, is exposed, and this is, indeed, what duly happens. That isn’t to say the novel is without interest, for although there is a grim inevitability about the unfolding events, CE Morgan’s prose is so beautiful, and her pacing – deliberately, deliciously slow – captures the mood perfectly. (That said, there is an archness about the way she turns nouns into verbs, and the Cormac McCarthyesque lack of punctuation for dialogue is tiresome.)
There is, throughout, a strong religious undercurrent here. Morgan is a Divinity graduate, and she is following in the long tradition of religiously-inflected southern writing. There is no grotesquery here, however; the characters are, perhaps, stock, but they are not caricatured, and their actions feel like the actions of characters following their God, rather than a Haze Motes or a Tarwater following their author’s following of her God. These are not O’Connorish puppets. There is no redemption at the end of the novel, and only a prospect of grace. Matters are resolved – of a fashion – but ambiguity and uncertainty remain as potent at the conclusion as they were at the beginning. For that, Morgan deserves respect: she clearly has her view of the spiritual, but she does not force it on her characters. It makes her message all the more powerful. All The Living is a very fine novel.