"Eden is an important story, not to be categorized by race or gender or region," Kate Cantrill writes of Olympia Vernon's debut. "Its truths are universal -- its women, all women; its men, all men; its earth, a part of all worlds." Vernon will be at BookPeople on March 12 at 7pm.
Edenby Olympia Vernon
Grove, 272 pp., $23
In Pyke County, Miss., 14-year-old Maddy Dangerfield divides her time between living with her parents -- who are locked in a perpetual struggle of love and violence -- and caring for her estranged Aunt Pip -- who is dying of breast cancer. Maddy learns of the ubiquity of suffering, the unfair division of power, and the grotesque needs and desires of the human body. She learns to empathize with an unjust man: "It did not matter that [Mr. Clyde] had worked my father in the field. He was burdened, his octagonal head banging against the steering wheel, his crying uncontrollable." She learns to care about a deluded woman: "Everything was blurry ... my wanting to put [Fat's] breasts in my hands to let one of those doctors in Jackson, Mississippi, check them for cancer." She learns to recognize where she is heading: "Nothing is solid except the moment a child notices ... that what she failed to recognize was what she was destined to become."
Maddy's voice is so truthful and raw that it becomes more mythical than real. She floats above, below, and within the world that she discovers. Vernon's prose is unapologetic; it rushes forward, soaring at times, grounded at others, unfettered by a strict genre of reality. Although she makes occasional references that place the story somewhere after Auschwitz, after Billie Holiday, Maddy's world is timeless, indefinable, yet firmly set in place. It is dense with folkloric language and thought. Disease is a curse; breast cancer due to spoiled milk. Alcoholism is described as knowing the vocabulary of the bottle, an unfamiliarity with all other vocabularies. Old World manners are adhered to: "This child got on white underclothes. You 'posed to wear black drawers to keep eyes off o' you."
Eden, Vernon's debut novel, is an important story, not to be categorized by race or gender or region. Its truths are universal -- its women, all women; its men, all men; its Earth, a part of all worlds. Vernon relies on the highest philosophies of spirit to tell this story of the body, and she does so in a way that does not take it from the hands of the people of Pyke County, but shares it graciously with the hands of all.