Blackwood by Michael Farris Smith
Publisher: Little, Brown, and Company
My Rating: 4/5 stars
Red Bluff, Mississippi has both literally and symbolically been transformed by the kudzu vines that creep ever forward. This town provides the landscape for characters such as Colburn, a sculptor who was returned to his hometown vaguely searching for answers about his traumatic childhood; Myer, the older lawman who desperately believes that there is good left in Red Bluff; Celia, the bartender; and a family of vagrants who care little for one another.
These startlingly human characters all meet in Red Bluff and they are all impacted by the town itself—struggling against it, the encroaching kudzu, and themselves. Regret, violence, and hatred mark the landscape and make you wonder if any good can be found in Red Bluff at all.
This Southern gothic’s primary strength and weakness is its prose. I have never read a book that is written in quite this style before and I enjoyed it immensely. Its fragmented sentences create a frenzied sense of urgency while at the same time lengthening and slowing down the story, almost placing it in a realm outside of time. I read this book rapidly, even though each of the minutes spent reading it felt much longer than they should. The only issue I found is that this style lacks clarity. While this seems intentional on Smith’s part (since the style mimics the landscape itself), I did find myself having to reread passages to truly understand what was happening (or, at the very least, who was speaking).
Throughout the novel, Smith describes the “brutality of indifference.” The kudzu swallows towns without caring what it harms or who it leaves behind, Colburn struggles to find meaning and purpose, and the vagrant family who moved to Red Bluff is so marked by indifference that they barely even know their own names. These are the things that cause the most pain in the novel. I found it refreshing that the evil that lurks in the town is not malicious but rather apathetic, because I rarely read books that frame wickedness in this way.
As someone who grew up in a small town—though not quite as small as Red Bluff—I can definitely relate to the apathy that can often permeate throughout them. I loved reading about a small town that was filled with such an evil caused by indifference because I have observed that for my entire life. It was a refreshing take on small towns, since most of what we read about them either glorifies the experience or asserts that they are filled with bad or crazy people. The people in Blackwood were not evil, but rather apathetic and stuck. However, the relationships that you form with others can still be meaningful despite all of this, something that the novel captures excellently.
I definitely recommend this novel to fans of gothic literature, people who grew up in small towns, and to people who are looking to reading something different and interesting!
Thanks to the Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC in
exchange for this honest and unbiased review.