Wednesday 23 October 2019

A savage history

Fiction: A Shout in the Ruins, Kevin Powers, Little, Brown, hardback, 368 ­pages, €22.99

Debut: A movie version of Kevin Powers' striking first book, about his time in Iraq, is due for release later this month. Photo by Jean-Philippe Baltel
Debut: A movie version of Kevin Powers' striking first book, about his time in Iraq, is due for release later this month. Photo by Jean-Philippe Baltel
A Shout in the Ruins

John Boland

Virginia-born Kevin Powers' civil war saga has the necessary grit but too many characters seem to flit in and out from what feels like a completely different novel.

In this era of ever-vigilant political correctness, one of the greatest artistic sins is deemed to be cultural appropriation, which usually means a white novelist daring to imagine what a character from some other ethnicity might be thinking or feeling.

The best riposte to this came as far back as 1993, when the Paris Review asked Toni Morrison if William Styron had the "right" to use a black slave narrator for his 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, and she replied: "He has a right to write about whatever he wants. To suggest otherwise is outrageous".

These are sterner times, though, and it will be interesting to see whether Kevin Powers will be taken to task for imagining the lives of black American slaves in his new novel.

The 37-year-old Powers, who was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, achieved literary fame with his 2012 first novel, The Yellow Birds, which was based on his year-long experiences as a machine gunner in Iraq in 2004-2005. It was a striking debut (a movie version is to be released imminently) and while its prose sometimes became overheated, it was full of vividly realised incidents and characters.

Much the same can be said of A Shout in the Ruins, in which Powers returns to his native Virginia and imagines what life must have been like there in the period before, during and after the American civil war that raged from 1861 to 1865 between north and south - a conflict that saw the southern slave-owning Confederates finally defeated, though not until at least 700,000 soldiers and civilians had been slaughtered.

In Powers' re-imagining, two of these slaves are Rawls (who had "no respect for white folks anymore, but he sometimes pitied them") and Nurse ("the strange girl who would so influence the rest of his life"), young neighbours in love with each other from an early age but subject to the whims of their owners - whether the relatively decent local land boss Bob Reid or psychopathic plantation owner Antony Levallois, who "felt little more than contempt" for everyone around him and whose violent tendencies are unnervingly unpredictable.

The book is at its most powerful when it stays with these and other characters in this turbulent period, but the author has chosen to devote every second chapter to other characters almost a century later - chiefly to George Seldom in the 1950s, who had been left as a foundling black child with a kindly woman in the 1860s but who is now in his nineties and intent on discovering his origins before he dies.

It's as if Powers, not content with telling his engrossing historical story or perhaps not certain it will fully hold the attention of today's readers, is seeking to give it a more recognisable relevance - even though the 1950s may seem just as remote to contemporary sensibilities as the 1860s, especially with black lives then not much freer in many ways than a century earlier. And certainly the effect of George's story, while interesting in itself, is to constantly distract the reader from the essential narrative and from the bleak truth of Rawls's muttered mantra that "today will be a hard day and tomorrow even harder".

In George's 1950s storyline, the reader also meets Lottie, who will try to assist him in his questing odyssey. We meet her again in 1984, long after George's demise, when she's living with adoring Vietnam vet Billy, who sits beside her hospital bed when she's dying of cancer.

Quite what this has to do with the main storyline, or even storylines, is a complete mystery and seems to have strayed in from an entirely different novel, and you would think that Powers' editor might have mentioned that to him.

The reader is further distracted by the late introduction of Colonel Tom Fitzgerald, a union officer tasked with maintaining law and order in this region of Virginia when the civil war ends. He again is vividly drawn, a moralistic martinet with a stern sense of right and wrong and a savage willingness to dispense summary justice, and a final showdown with the loathsome Levallois seems inevitable. However, as it turns out, he doesn't contribute, let alone accomplish, anything, and you're left wondering why Powers bothered introducing him at all.

And the horrible arbitrary fate meted out near the end to two of the book's main characters will strike many readers as gratuitously cruel, though the author would probably argue that such is the way of the vicious world he has recreated.

That may be, but by now the reader may feel entitled to ask about the point of a novelistic re-creation that doesn't provide any sense of redemption, closure or contemporary relevance. Is it really enough to say, well, that's what it was like?

Perhaps the book's sales will benefit from the topicality that's been provided for it by American superstar rapper and Trump-admirer Kanye West, who recently caused outrage when he told an entertainment website: "When you hear about slavery for 400 years... 400 years? That sounds like a choice".

But who'd want to benefit from moronic remarks like that? And Powers' novel certainly evokes a grim sense of what it must have been like to suffer the barbarity of enslavement.

A pity, then, that he opted to deviate from it throughout too much of his book.

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