Friday 23 March 2018

Review: The Legacy of Eden by Nelle Davy

Mira, €8.99


EVEN the one-page prologue of Nelle Davy's impressive debut novel about the ill-starred Hathaway farming dynasty in Iowa is liberally splattered with the blood of betrayal.

These themes of injury and injustice are forcefully and consistently -- some might, with justice, say relentlessly -- staked throughout every chapter and most pages of The Legacy of Eden.

Interestingly, and still within that ultra-brief prologue, Davy chooses to reveal the cruel philosophy of Lavinia, the novel's twisted matriarch, that "blood will out" -- rather than the traditional thicker-than-water familial bind.

It's a sentiment utterly appropriate in its savagery: so many wounds are inflicted and self-inflicted during this fast-paced family saga that scars of battle, mental and physical, become the Hathaways' norm over three stormy generations. They suffer, therefore they are.

All dramas need natural catalysts, and in The Legacy of Eden the cirrhosis-fuelled death of her cousin Cal Jr sparks a lawyer's letter that catapults narrator Meredith into a past she has spent her present working to forget.

Her story, and those of her two estranged sisters, Claudia and Ava, is inexorably entwined around their childhood and teenage years at the family homestead, Aurelia.

The farm became the abiding love of Meredith's scheming grandmother, Lavinia, since her adulterous arrival in 1946: lavishly shaped and polished by her to become the jewel in the county's crown.

But since inheriting less than five decades later, Cal Jr has corroded it to a husk.

Lavinia and her (also drunkard) husband, Cal Sr, are long gone, but their ghosts taunt Meredith as she tries to deny her own part in the bloody betrayal.

As Merey reluctantly lifts the lid on her ruined family legacy, the malevolent spectres at the family feast are driven into the open by the attacking hand of this deft author.

Snobbish Lavinia is released first, in all her calculating, controlling glory. The pity of it all is that the gilded cage she has toiled to create cannot contain her family's downfall -- because she values possessions and status over people.

She is the ultimate misplaced matriarch, ignorant to her deathbed of the fact that perhaps even her wayward step-daughter Julia -- and certainly her two sons, Theo and Ethan -- might have been able to love her had she not been so busy creating standards they couldn't possibly live up to.

Cal Sr's manipulative daughter, Julia, is next: ever the victor over Lavinia because of her mother's decapitation in a car crash in front of those horrified three-year-old eyes -- and thus with an unassailable hold over her doting father.

But devilish Julia reckoned without Lavinia honing her cunning to the vicious point of perfection in order to exile her rival forever in yet another violent showdown.

London-based Davy, who has a masters in creative writing from Trinity College, Dublin, says she took her inspiration from Robert Graves's I, Claudius and wanted to transport a hard-hitting tale of family machinations from ancient Rome to modern America.

What she has achieved is more like Dallas without the soap meets the tragic hubris of the Kennedy clan without the glamorous politics.

This is not by any means a criticism. The Legacy of Eden is a seriously good debut novel; the sparse language in particular making for a well-judged challenge for readers.

It's fast, it's furious, and the rare flashes of wry humour -- as in the locals' polarised reaction when Cal Sr and his brother, Leo, come to blows over their father's will during the funeral gathering in Aurelia -- are impeccable.

But there is, unfortunately, an overkill of tragedy. Although the writing is always credible in itself, there are just too many fists flung, too many sensibilities trampled on, too many tender ambitions thwarted and too many instances of plain bad luck.

By the time the slow-burning fuse lit in that sinister prologue begins to fizzle and blister, the reader is likely to regard it as a relatively damp squib rather than the heinous act of climax this talented writer clearly intended.

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