Midway through Jeffrey Lent's turbulent and lyrical first novel, a wayward son indulges a sobering reflection. "Mostly, people are cruel, given the chance," Jamie Pelham observes, not only assuaging his own disappointments but also affirming the intransigence of deed and memory--and prejudice. In the Fall is freighted with such moments, as a postbellum Yankee family strives to fathom its past in order to clarify its present. What they find, as Lent's tale ambles over three generations, is the danger of probing too deeply.
When 17-year-old Norman Pelham departs his father's Vermont farm to join the Union army, he can little anticipate the incredulity and scorn that his return--accompanied by his former-slave bride--will elicit. The newlyweds make a go of country life, Leah's industry wins the locals' begrudging respect, and the two transact a fidelity that only rarely acknowledges their racial dissimilarities. Leah, however, who fled her native North Carolina after lashing out violently against a lifetime of abuse, believes an inescapable retribution stalks her. And so, beset with guilt and anxious to confront her own past, she briefly leaves Norman and their three children, throwing all five lives into disarray. Her desperation eventually reemerges in her youngest child, the volatile Jamie, who abandons farm life for bootlegging and rash romance. When his own ruthlessness undoes him, it falls to his son, Foster, to uncover the lingering mystery of Leah's life and death, as well as the obstinate racism that has stalked the Pelhams.
Throughout its pages, In the Fall suggests that identity consists of an undeniable duality--that although we can make of ourselves what we will, we can never completely efface what made us. Foster, upon returning to the farm his father had left years before, understands that it is "a world he was not even sure he wanted part of, and yet a part of it belonged to him by the simple fact of his existence." Unlike his grandmother, though, who found only a disillusioning misery in self-discovery, or his father, who simply shirked the quest, Foster is confident of redemption. Despite a few prolonged episodes and an occasionally portentous dialogue, Jeffrey Lent's debut is admirable, a sobering and painstaking chronicle of the persistence of tragedy and the irrefutability of hope. --Ben Guterson
Compared by critics to William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy, Jeffrey Lent’s In the Fall is the most stunning debut to come along in years. Ambitious in scope and passionately executed, this epic novel is the rarest of things: a truly moving, emotionally honest, and intellectually satisfying American family.
In the twilight of the Civil War, Leah, an escaped slave, discovers Norman Pelham, a wounded soldier who lies dying in a battlefield outside Richmond. After she nurses him back to health, Norman brings her to his family farm in Vermont as his wife, and they begin a family. Now the mother of three, and however begrudgingly, accepted in the community, Leah travels back to the South of her birth and returns with a secret that threatens to destroy what she and Norman had created. Her son Jamie, passing for white, escapes his legacy and enters a world of petty bootlegging, achieving a kind of respectability in the Prohibition era, but also suffering wrenching losses. At the eve of the Great Depression his son, Foster, retraces the path taken by his grandmother and finally confronts the secret exposed by an unknown white uncle, the legacy of slavery, and the painful intricacies of race.
If You Enjoy "In the Fall: A Novel (Paperback)", May We Also Recommend: