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BookBrowse Reviews The Driest Season by Meghan Kenny

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The Driest Season

by Meghan Kenny

The Driest Season by Meghan Kenny X
The Driest Season by Meghan Kenny
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  • Published:
    Feb 2018, 192 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Dean Muscat
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Set on the agricultural plains of Boaz, Wisconsin during an unrelenting summer drought, The Driest Season follows a girl on the cusp of womanhood in the throes of existential angst.

On a summer afternoon in 1943, an almost sixteen-year-old Cielle Jacobson walks into the family barn to find that her father has hung himself from the ceiling beam. The suicide is unexpected, and Cielle cannot fully comprehend what drove her father to end his life so suddenly. While it is true he suffered from episodic debilitating migraines, he by and large seemed to be a content, loving family man. Later that day, Cielle discovers her mother has covered up the suicide to make it look as if it were not anything more suspicious than an unfortunate farming accident. The Jacobsons lease the farm from a local landlord, and the law stipulates that in events where a man dies by his own hand, he contractually forgoes his land rights. Now the Jacobson women must keep the true cause of death a secret in order to save the farm, their home, and their livelihood. Meanwhile a war rages on in Europe. And while the calm American heartland remains relatively unaffected, more and more young men are enlisting in the army and leaving Boaz. Cielle and her peers are aware that many of these boys will probably return home, at best, with severe mental and physical injuries, and, at worst, in boxes.

Set against this backdrop of familial bereavement and a world in turmoil, The Driest Season turns the focus inwards, and explores how a contemplative teenage girl is forced to make sense of life and her place in the universe. As such, this novella really is a balancing act for author Meghan Kenny. Life—as life always does—goes on, but internally Cielle needs time to pause, reflect, heal. For the most part Kenny succeeds in keeping equilibrium between the stop-and-gos of these internal and external realities, but not without some wavering and faltering. And while one might assume it would be the moments that wallow in introspection that would stall momentum and make for occasionally tedious reading, it is the inverse that is actually true.

For a relatively short book, Kenny sure throws in a lot of events. First there's the suicide, which is followed a few days later by a tornado that destroys the barn as if "the world needed to wipe out this place where something bad happened." There's a horse riding accident and an unread suicide note. The coroner is naturally suspicious of the cause of Mr Jacobson's death and in two minds whether to report foul play to the landlord Mr Olsen. Then there are intermittent episodes of teenage attractions, jealousies and first kisses, which at times verge on soap opera-y melodrama.

While this constant series of events keeps the narrative chugging along steadily enough, few of the unfolding incidents ever feel particularly novel or greatly interesting. However, as we see things entirely from Cielle's point of view, it is at times difficult to tell whether the matter-of-factness of how some episodes are conveyed is meant to reflect a sense of detachment due to her grief or not.

Instead it is through Cielle's existential musings that the writing really comes to life. During solitary walks and night-time swims in a nearby lake, she remembers happy, intimate moments between her younger self and her father. Looking up at the glittering canvas of the star-lit sky she initially sees herself as "a small insignificant dot swirling around the enormous universe." But as the days pass by, her heartbreak heals and the ennui begins to lift. Life takes on more profound meaning in light of the grand scheme of things: "The universe was in constant motion. Her own molecules and atoms were vibrating and colliding. The human heart pumped blood throughout the body. Continents drifted across the surface of the planet, and the earth spun day and night." Kenny's writing feels truly inspired in these bursts of majestic revelation that shine through the prosaic drama.

While The Driest Season is not perfect, it manages to be an affecting novel because of how it interprets the grieving process through prose and finds hope and goodness in a world that can all too often appear exhaustingly bleak. Time may not erase, but it does heal. The dry season is just that, a season that will eventually pass. And as Cielle comes to realize, despite all the sorrow: "We're alive [...] and it's a miraculous thing."

Reviewed by Dean Muscat

This review first ran in the March 7, 2018 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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