C.E. Morgan’s gossamer debut novel, All the Living, tells a simple story with a graceful, probing style that elevates it far above simplicity. Chronicling a young woman’s self-discovery through the promise of love and the inevitable disappointments that ensue, Morgan’s spare but intense narrative is a poetic meditation that burrows to our most basic human emotions. 

Now in her early 20s, Aloma was orphaned young and raised by an aunt and uncle before boarding at a settlement school in rural Kentucky. A raw piano prodigy, she has stayed on at the school to teach. Orren, a local farmer just a few years her senior, represents the possibility of something more. As the novel opens, Aloma arrives to take up residence with Orren on the hardscrabble tobacco farm he has inherited after the tragic death of his mother and brother.

Although Aloma and Orren share a visceral love spurred by an undeniable sexual hunger, they are ill prepared for the pragmatic give-and-take of domesticity. Orren is buried deep within his grief, wholly immersing himself in the Sisyphean effort to keep the farm going on his own. Aloma encounters small frustrations—not least of all, the discovery that the neglected family piano Orren lured her with is out of tune and unplayable—along with new feelings of loneliness and inadequacy. At Orren’s suggestion, she seeks a job as the piano player at a nearby church. There she begins an awkward friendship with its preacher, Bell, guarding the fact that she is “living in sin.” Over the course of one drought-stricken summer, Aloma struggles with Orren’s brooding belligerence and her unexplored feelings for Bell—a struggle that will culminate in an unavoidably imperfect choice.

While Morgan’s publisher rightly compares her to Marilynne Robinson and Annie Proulx, a more apt equation might be Annie Dillard, for this talented young writer can take a reader’s breath away with her clear, precise depiction of the natural world. In this elegant, impressive debut, Morgan deftly traverses the jagged fissures of love and seeks to locate the primal bonds between the human soul and the world it inhabits.

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