Bay Reads - August 2019
- by Scott Naugle
"The Accidentals" by Minrose Gwin is the best type of novel, striking so many intellectual and emotional chords. The deep and rich story is masterfully built through the subtlest of detail, nuance, shading and intuition.
Beautifully styled, every word gently and intentionally placed, "The Accidentals" is destined to become a classic of 21st century American literature.
For those of us reading "The Accidentals" in southern Mississippi, there is a unique connection in that the story is set in Pearl River County. We will recognize the environs, culture and the context within which the story flows.
Minrose Gwin is a native of Tupelo, Mississippi. Her previous novels include "Promise" and "The Queen of Palmyra."
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Most recently, she was a professor at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"The Accidentals" begins in 1957. Olivia McAlister is an anxious mother of two daughters, June and Grace, married to the dependable Holly, a bookkeeper for the local paper mill company. Holly drives a Nash Rambler and is meticulous in trimming the hedges of their neat, comfortable house.
Impacted by and wistful for the energy and vibe of her youth in New Orleans, Olivia cannot find her footing among the routines and housewives of a rural Mississippi community. She’s standoffish, a loner, pining for the intellectual and artistic stimulation of a larger city and the invigorating broader cause she served while working at the Higgins boat factory during World War II.
Through bird-watching and opera, Olivia attempts to find purpose and connection. She is an accidental, “a bird found outside its normal geographic range, migration route, or season: vagrant,” explains the "Merriam-Webster Dictionary."
With a richly developed interior life, artistic, self-aware, walking through days under a deep and exhausting disquietude, Olivia McAlister joins Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Evan Connell’s Mrs. Bridge.
Intelligent, internally reflective, and articulate female characters in literature are a rarity, particularly through which an author sets the tone of a novel or barometer through which other characters or society are judged.
In the opening paragraphs of "Mrs. Dalloway," “… feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers…”
And from the opening of "Mrs. Bridge," “…Now and then while growing up the idea came to her that she could get along very nicely without a husband.”
Both are strong independent women challenging the status quo and searching for intellectual fulfillment outside a society dominated by men and commerce.
We are introduced to Olivia McAlister in the opening paragraphs of "The Accidentals" as she projects her concerns and desires, “Listen hard now and you can tell what they are saying. This morning the cardinal. Sweetheart, sweetheart, sweetheart, sweet. Then, two houses down, a mockingbird. Redemption, redemption, redemption…Cheer, cheer, cheer. I’m all ears little wren.”
Birds represent flight - an escape - while chirping coded messages to the restless Olivia McAlister, plotting her next action that will, through a series of mishaps, lead an escape flight that will be aborted.
After Olivia’s death, her daughters and Holly are boomeranged through a series of emotions and actions that further reverberate into the lives of others with tragic consequences – abortions, wrongful incarceration, cancer, mental illness, physical deformity.
I must admit that the plot twists in "The Accidentals" were so unexpected, and shocking, that I stopped short in my reading and gasped more than once.
Gwin can plot a story like few other writers. She exposes the randomness and elegiac incongruity of Southern life at the twilight of the twentieth century. Like an unrestrained and irrepressible Faulkner spinning through generations of malevolence and wickedness in "Absalom, Absalom!", Gwin’s characters cannot escape their past, the poor judgments of their relations, and pure bad luck.
Unlike her fellow Mississippian William Faulkner, Gwin writes with a balance and steadiness, spinning a completely believable story, more grounded in day-to-day life than we may care to acknowledge.
“What I know is that there are always stories behind the stories people tell,” muses June, “They are stacked like crackers in a box behind the ones they do tell.”
There’s hope and love in "The Accidentals" among and within the missteps, and this, I believe, is one of the reasons I believe it succeeds as an enduring work of fiction.
Gwin does not attempt to unearth plausible causes, scrapping through circumstances or family attics for reasons to present the reader as to why something happened.
Rather, she understands that art, particularly literature, is where one word or one inferring principle is enough. Gwin gives us a story to contemplate, softly imprisoning the reader in her beautiful and subtle language, as we read late into the early morning hours.
Good gosh, Minrose Gwin. "The Accidentals" – a tour de force on so many levels.
By Minrose Gwin
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