Set in the Appalachian hill country of North Carolina at the turn of the twentieth century, Gap Creek is subtitled “a story of a marriage” and relates the early travails of Julie Harmon and her new husband, the earnest but highly-strung Hank Richards. The author, Robert Morgan, is a poet, and it shows: the language is beautiful – descriptive, evocative and free-flowing. Character, too, is well drawn, the reader’s impression of the protagonists deriving particularly from strong and credible dialogue. The novel is narrated by the ill-educated Julie and told in simple language which is nonetheless compelling. Plot, on the other hand, is more of an issue. In an interview, Morgan said:
"I told myself I was not going to write stories like a poet. I wanted to write stories with dynamic tension and conflict, with a lean style that kept the reader focused on the story itself, not the language," he said.
This points to both the strengths and the weaknesses of Gap Creek. That Morgan is a poet is never in question, yet he does, indeed, achieve his aim of maintaining a lean style. This is not as contradictory as it sounds: it takes considerable skill to make writing appear effortless, and while the strong narrative drive of Gap Creek does indeed engage the reader’s focus, it is not at the expense of language. Morgan is no Dan Brown or Robert Ludlum, who use high drama to mask lumpen language.
But there is a relentlessness to the plot, and in particular to the miseries heaped upon the protagonists, which in the end becomes faintly ludicrous. A famous British author of the last century, Catherine Cookson, was noted for novel after novel in which the (invariably female and feisty) protagonist was laid low by disaster after disaster, misery upon misery. Cookson’s plots were wretched enough to make even Tess Durbeyfield think herself blessed not to have been in one. Morgan’s writing is several classes above Cookson’s (and a few below Hardy’s) but his insistence on misery-plotting does show an uncanny resemblance to Our Kate.
The novel begins with the horrifying death of Julie’s younger brother from a surfeit of worms. (I’m sure I read a very similar death quite recently, but I can’t recall where.) Almost immediately, her father, too, snuffs it, succumbing noisily to consumption. Some respite is offered by a whirlwind romance with rugged Hank Richards from the next valley, but it is a brief idyll before the realities of married life begin to overwhelm them. Each set piece drama is beautifully written. Throughout, the novel is told through Julie’s uneducated eyes and yet Morgan manages to prevent this from limiting the emotional range. It is an impressive feat, to be sure.
But, taken together, it all feels a bit laboured, even veering towards melodrama. Why, for example, after having one vividly told death-by-fire, would you have a later scene in which a minor character is also threatened by fire but escapes with nothing more than scorch marks to her frock? Perhaps it is part of a narrative arc to demonstrate that the worst has passed, but it feels like a clumsy anti-climax – repetitive but offering diminishing returns. Similarly, the young couple are tricked out of their meagre savings by conmen not once but twice. In characterisation terms, there is a rationale to this, but stylistically what is to be gained by such repetition? The characterisational change could have been effected by something different.
And repetitiveness is also regularly demonstrated in Julie’s narration, where she makes a point, usually about her husband’s character, only to re-make it two or three paragraphs later. Again, this may be deliberate on the part of the author, to demonstrate her gaucheness, but it grates, nonetheless.
My feeling is that the book is fifty pages too long. Something stark and sparse and beautiful, like Charles Portis’s True Grit, could be made from this novel if it was focused on fewer traumatic moments. Julie is certainly a fine creation, a spirited, courageous and resilient young woman and it has been a privilege to ‘know’ her. And Morgan is impressive in the way he refuses – at least until the very end, when the novel turns a trifle soggy – to sentimentalise either the situation or his characters. But, all in all, the misery in Gap Creek seems to be layered on just too thickly to be credible. The melodrama becomes the message, instead of the characters.