Here is yet another remarkable first novel. Sarah Elaine Smith is a published poet and I think it shows in the vivid prose of this book, but this is her first work of fiction. It is a work of empathy and compassion for the flawed characters within it. Even when they behave badly or stupidly, their creator enfolds them in her generous understanding and, with that, she encourages her readers toward the same attitude. "See?" she seems to say, "they are only human and they are doing the best they can, just like all of us."
Her narrator is a 14-year-old outsider named Cindy Stoat. Cindy lives with her two older brothers, Virgil and Clinton, in a ramshackle house in rural Pennsylvania. The father is absent. They have a mother but she comes and goes and is seldom on the scene. The electricity has been turned off because of unpaid bills. They are basically on their own and frequently hungry. They live a feral existence. (Shades of Where the Crawdads Sing!)
They have neighbors named Jude and Bernadette Vanderjohn. Jude is the teenage daughter of Bernadette. When Jude was fourteen and Virgil was a senior in high school, they were a couple. They called themselves Marilou and Cletus. Now Bernadette has descended into alcoholism and has only a tenuous grasp on reality. Jude is a popular teenager with a wide circle of friends. When she disappears after a weekend with some of those friends, her mother doesn't even realize she is gone. Her friends miss her and call the police but the trail is already cold.
Virgil takes it upon himself to check on Bernadette daily and, after a while, Cindy goes along with him. She is overwhelmed by the riches contained in Bernadette's house, especially books. She had been an inveterate reader of catalogs because they were all that were available to her. Now she has access to actual books! Riches beyond her wildest imagination.
Then a strange transformation begins. The confused Bernadette starts mistaking Cindy for Jude. Finally, Cindy plays along with her and pretends to be Jude.
But what of the real Jude? What has happened to her? Is she even still alive? That is the mystery at the heart of this story. And what will happen to Cindy and her brothers if the mystery is solved?
Smith had me from the very first of this novel right through its ending. Her prose gives the reader entry into this strange but tender world. From the beginning, we feel a part of it and we understand Cindy's feeling of being an outsider and never quite being good enough. We understand her longing to be like Jude and finally to be Jude. It is, as I said in the beginning, a remarkable accomplishment in a first novel.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars