It is hard to imagine a more irresistible plot: an orphaned heroine whose mother was an exotic dancer, a Depression-era mental hospital that experiments with shock therapy—not to mention a tragic, unsolved mystery straight from the history books. Lee Smith, the author of 13 novels, including the bestsellers Fair and Tender Ladies and The Last Girls, juggles all these stories effortlessly in the mesmerizing Guests on Earth. The book begins with an Associated Press news article about an actual event: a March 10, 1948, fire at Asheville’s Highland Hospital for the mentally ill, in which nine women perished, one of whom was Zelda Fitzgerald.
With this tragic remnant of history never far from mind, the novel’s heroine, Evalina Toussaint, begins a first-person account of her childhood in New Orleans’ French Quarter. After her mother’s death, the young girl’s refusal to eat finds her shipped off to Highland Hospital, where she will spend the rest of her childhood and her early adulthood.
Moving seamlessly from New Orleans to Asheville, then on to Baltimore and Paris before looping back to Asheville and New Orleans once again, Guests on Earth gives readers a fascinating, albeit heart-wrenching, glimpse of early 20th-century psychiatric treatments, including the work of celebrated psychiatrist Robert S. Carroll. His unwavering belief in the importance of art, music and exercise therapy in treating mental illness was revolutionary in his day—even as he popularized shock therapy.
Guests on Earth delivers on all counts, entrancing readers with a brilliant tapestry that falls inside the confines of historical fiction, yet defies genre with a hypnotic narrative.