I hungrily raced through Mudbound in
just two days, a whirlwind, fiction-filled 48 hours in which
I loathed to put the book down. In the non-reading hours I
worked or drifted to sleep with Hillary Jordan's six
narrating characters chattering on gently in my head.
Alternating narrators is tricky business, but Jordan pulls
it off seamlessly, immediately commanding her characters to
life. The strength of their voices erases the fingerprints
and guiding hand of the writer, making every move in the
gripping drama, every turn of phrase or detail in the prose
emerge as entirely the handiwork of each character.
At the heart of Mudbound is Laura, an educated city-spinster turned reluctant-farmer's-wife. Her husband, Henry McAllan, rescues her from one kind of loneliness only to deliver her into another an isolated, mucky farm, ruled by the oppressive presence of her bigoted father-in-law. Filled with a growing sense of claustrophobia and longing, and marked by observant and poetic prose, Laura's passages are the ones I clung to most.
"When I think of the farm, I think of mud. Limning my husband's fingernails and encrusting the children's knees and hair. Sucking at my feet like a greedy newborn on the breast. Marching in boot-shaped patches across the plank floors of the house. There was no defeating it. The mud coated everything. I dreamed in brown."
When Jamie, Henry's magnetic fighter-pilot brother, returns to the farm, he shakes up Laura's stunted passions and befriends the son of the McAllan's black sharecroppers, setting in motion a series of events with dramatic and grave consequences. As captivating as the many-stranded narrative is, it's not a sweet one. I desperately wanted the characters to escape their inexorable fates, but I knew Jordan's writing was too strong to offer facile conclusions about the "triumph of the human spirit." Her storytellers bear witness to some of the most horrific, unjust beliefs and actions that stain our nation's history, offering a token of literary justice that resonates much deeper than a mere drop in the best-seller bucket. This is a brave, beautiful novel, deserving of much praise and a wide readership.
This review was originally published in March 2008, and has been updated for the March 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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