After reading The Long Way Home last year and The Nature of the Beast earlier this year I still wasn’t sure what Louise Penny had remaining up her sleeve for the residents of Three Pines and the remaining members of the Sûreté, but I knew not to worry about it anymore. While those books were heading towards a new direction, this book finally takes sure steps into the new reality these characters are facing. The Nature of the Beast accepted the new status quo, this book relishes in it. Isabelle Lacoste has settled into her role of Chief Inspector, Jean Guy Beauvoir is coming into his own as husband, soon to be father, and recovering addict. But perhaps most importantly Armand Gamache has decided what his next steps professionally will be, as his retirement was not permanent.
A Great Reckoning lives up to its name – Gamache is
directly reckoning with several different elements of his past both within and
without the Sûreté. What really worked for me in this book was the emotionally
powerful narrative threads Penny wove together. In her Author’s Note Penny
thanked those who have supported her and her husband while they deal with his dementia.
It is clear on the page how her emotional work in her personal life is
reflected in the emotional work of her characters, once you know its there. The
final denouement of the activities in the Academy faintly pulled at my credulity,
but the mental abuse and prolonged damage it was meant to convey landed fine. I’ll
be happily picking up the thirteenth book in this series early next year and
remain confident in what Penny is exploring.
In 2015 I read Ward’s Men We Reaped and I was fascinated with the way Ward’s language in a memoir was tinged with a bit of magical realism, and also just a larger than life feeling. At the time I put Ward on my radar – this was an author I was interested in a further relationship with. Once reviews for her 2017 work Sing, Unburied, Sing started coming in I knew this would be the one.
Sing, Unburied, Sing is a big, award-winning book (National
Book Award for Fiction (2017), Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction
(2018)), and I can understand why very easily. But it is also a book that left
me scratching my head a bit even before we got to the ending. Part of it is
certainly the literary roots that Ward is working from, because while Ward is
telling the stories of the places physically and emotionally, she knows, she is
also building on the great American writers before her like Toni Morrison and
Zora Neale Hurston. There are lines to be drawn here to Beloved but I
won’t be the one to draw them, that is far outside my wheelhouse. But its
perhaps that Morrison comparison that shows me why I’m in awe of the
craftmanship in Ward’s lyrical work but not enamored of them, the magical is made
literal in a way that no longer allows me as the reader to connect.
They share a regionalism, for Ward that regionalism provides
the images that are repeated again and again as a shorthand to the reader of
what is often beautiful is always barely hiding danger. From pines to skin and
garments red with mud to animals waiting for slaughter the reader is haunted by
an eerie quality of lurking unease. In one of my favorite insights from the New
Yorker article linked above, the author compares the characters in Sing,
Unburied, Sing to being stranded in an epilogue. That makes a great deal of
sense to me, the meat of this novel is a road trip to prison where Jojo,
Leonie, Kayla, and Misty head toward Michael’s release and the place where Pop lived
out a nightmare. We are seeing with these characters the aftereffects of their
lives, but there is very little in the way of forward movement. Certainly an interesting
way to unpack the very real consequences of life in the American South.