Sunday, April 05, 2009

Sexy, muscular writing and an old piano that sounds like meat

All the Living
By C.E. Morgan
Knopf Canada, 208 pages, $30

Reviewed by Ariel Gordon

IT might seem strange to recommend a novel about a drought set in the U.S. south while we endure our northern flood.

But a conflagration is a conflagration, and Kentuckian C.E. Morgan's All the Living is a damn fine distraction.

This lean little novel, Morgan's first, tells the story of Aloma and Orren, a young couple who attempt to run the family farm after Orren's mother and brother die in a tragic accident. Two things get in their way: the drought that has settled over the region and the fact Aloma and Orren's relationship isn't sanctified by marriage.

While we don't know precisely when the novel is set, in the Kentucky small-town time and place they inhabit, it matters that Aloma and Orren aren't married.

And if that isn't enough, worry over losing the crop - and, by extension, the farm - is turning the grief-stricken Orren inside out.

Aloma - from whose point-of-view the novel is told - agreed to join Orren at the farm and act as farm wife because she loves him but also because she doesn't know what else to do.

What she doesn't understand is running a farm, never having even lived in a house before.

Another thorn is that Aloma discovered at school that she was a gifted pianist. And the piano at the house that Orren promised was in working condition is ruined - "the sound was spoiled like meat."

While she can learn to cook and clean, to feed the chickens and hope for rain, Aloma can't unlearn her ambition, and it only take a month without playing the piano before she gets a job playing hymns at a local church.

This is where Aloma meets Bell Johnson, a farmer whose version of noblesse oblige means that he, like his father, half ruins his own farm so he can also preach at the church.

Bell, a bachelor with a suspicious mother and, worse, a ruined piano of his own at home, is drawn to Aloma, or, rather, to Aloma at the piano.

Aloma likes that Bell can talk circles around what is bothering him and that he seems to need her, unlike the flinty, distant Orren. But she is trapped playing house with Orren, and it is questionable whether marriage to Bell would satisfy her ambition any more than marriage to Orren would.

But no matter your notions of duty versus ambition or marriage versus living in sin, it is hard to ignore the sexy, muscular writing on offer here. Also of note is Morgan's skill in depicting the desperate but aimless energy of early adulthood, particularly from a female perspective.

Although the book does nod towards Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer-winning Gilead (2004) - in some ways, All the Living feels like a reverse-angle telling of that story - Morgan is more interested in exploring dissonance than harmony.

And while Morgan's master's in theology from Harvard Divinity School shows in her rendition of entire sermons, Bell's is a small, practical theology, heartfelt and palatable even to those who prefer their fiction secular.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer and editor.

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I would like to note - all deference to Books Editor Morley Walker aside - that that is NOT my headline.


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