All the Living by C.E. Morgan

Posted: March 31, 2010 in Book Reviews
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The true sign of a good story is that it’s difficult to summarize in a few paragraphs.  When a novel has such depth, so many layers, that it sticks with you, makes you consider its emotional impact on both the characters and the reader, you know you’ve found a story worth revisiting.  C.E. Morgan has accomplished this in her beautifully written debut, All the Living (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

In terms of plot, the novel is pretty straightforward: Aloma, a young woman with virtually no familial ties, agrees to move in with her boyfriend, Orren, on his family’s tobacco farm—this following a fatal car accident involving his mother and brother.  Raised by her aunt and uncle and sent to boarding school during her formative years, Aloma is thrust into a situation where she’s expected to adopt the role of housewife, while Orren attempts to keep the farm afloat in the midst of a severe summer drought.

Set in rural Kentucky in the 1980s, this story shows how desire and love can be confused in the face of loss and loneliness.  There are two houses on this farm: the old one, which is where Orren has decided they’ll stay; and the new one, where Orren’s mother and brother lived before the accident.  It’s easy to assume why Orren doesn’t want to stay in the new house.  He’s clinging to what he’s lost, and he seems determined to preserve the memory of his family by leaving the new house alone and by doing everything he can to sustain the farm.  In doing so, he inadvertently neglects Aloma, putting their future together in doubt.

Initially, Aloma doesn’t see why they can’t move into the new house.  She doesn’t know why Orren’s attention is more devoted to a dying cause than to her.  It could have to do with the fact that she doesn’t share the same notion of loss that he does.  Reflecting on the death of her parents, never having known them, she reveals ambivalence toward loss:

As a child, she’d tried to invent the feeling of loss inside of her.  But like the dead, the feeling simply wasn’t there.  It was not that her uncle and aunt filled up the space that her parents vacated; it was just that the empty space was fine as it was and no more hurtful than being born with four fingers on one hand instead of five.  It was just a lack she sought didn’t mean anything.

The inability to connect emotionally aside, Aloma has good reason to wonder about Orren’s sincerity.  When he proposed, he said: “You gonna be my wife or what?”  She responded, fittingly, with a joke: “Sure, but don’t get too stuck on me—I’m not long for this place.”

At this time, in this old-fashioned farm town, the idea of a couple living together out of wedlock is looked at as being taboo.  In her first trip to the grocery store, she requests that the clerk put her purchases on Orren’s credit account.  When the clerk begins to pry about her relationship to Orren, Aloma doesn’t humor her by answering the questions.  Morgan uses silence to build tension in the scene, releasing it when Aloma decides to pay cash for the groceries.

Tension arises in many forms throughout the novel: the growing strain of Aloma’s and Orren’s relationship, the financial impact of the drought, and the introduction of another man who causes Aloma to question Orren’s love, among others.  Bell Johnson is the preacher at the church where Aloma is hired to play piano.  When the monotony of spending her waking hours as a pseudo-housewife becomes too unbearable, Aloma retreats to the church, her sanctuary, where she’s able to sit at the piano and play—her only outlet.  Seeing Bell more frequently than Orren sparks desire in her heart, and she begins to lust after the preacher.

Bell takes a liking to her, as well.  While talking to her about the drought—its persistence and the farmers trying to wait it out—he says, “What looks like patience tastes like despair.”  It’s difficult not to question his intentions.  He seems to be enabling her into entertaining thoughts of passion—though he’s unaware of her relationship to Orren, he’s still a man of God; but also, he’s only a man.  Aloma becomes conflicted.  She’s not sure what to do about her relationship, she fears what will happen if Bell finds out she’s living with Orren in sin, and she’s tempted to act on lustful urges.

While the story by itself is layered enough to sustain the interest of readers from all levels, what stands out in this novel is the way it’s written.  The rhythm in Morgan’s prose feels very natural.  The descriptions of the land and the insight we get from Aloma follow a musical cadence that help capture the character’s mood, without breaking the narrative dream.  The rich dialect of the characters’ dialogue is so spot on it makes you want to read the exchanges out loud in a southern drawl.

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