You only think you know what you’re in for when Backseat Saints begins: “It was an airport gypsy who told me that I had to kill my husband.” Joshilyn Jackson’s fourth novel isn’t a series of funny, trashy set pieces out of Dogpatch; rather, the tale Jackson tells is grim, and unless you count the narrator’s dog and a few minor characters, there’s not one likable person in it.

It’s a testament to Jackson’s talent that we stick with her protagonist, Rose Mae Lolley (aka Ro Grandee), despite the fact that she’s vicious, impulsive, deceitful and about as dim as the aforementioned dog. She’s also the victim of a husband who’s even more of a monster than she is. We hope she either gets away for good or kills him, for there’s no doubt that the psychopathic Thom Grandee will one day kill her. By the time the book opens, he’s already come close a couple of times.

But Rose has been reared in violence and chaos since childhood. Her mother, a rare devout Catholic in the ironically named town of Fruiton, Alabama, abandoned her when she was eight. Claire Lolley left her daughter with a man who tried to eradicate his sorrow in drink, and when that didn’t work, he took his rage out on his young daughter—he first dislocated Rose’s shoulder when she was just nine. Since then Rose has only known to move from one bad man to another.

Jackson knows that suffering doesn’t necessarily make one saintly or compassionate; it’s just as likely to make one wary and dangerous. Rose resents her virtuous next door neighbor and steals from her. She sees nearly everyone as an enemy or someone to be dismissed, and when she finally tracks down her mother—a woman who’s almost as self-obsessed as she is—she behaves with a maddening, punitive childishness.

Jackson has a magical way with words, injecting fearless insight throughout the novel. Backseat Saints is rough going in places, but it succeeds because of Jackson’s insistence on telling the truth about Rose Mae and her dangerous and unhappy world. It’s the work of a first-rate writer.

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