So, you think your family is difficult? Meet the Smallwoods. Georgie, the narrator of Lynn Hightower's latest novel, has never shaken the scandal she caused in the small, picturesque town of Beaufort, South Carolina, by having a child out of wedlock at age 16. Her son, Hank, ran away from home at 15, and she has searched high and low for him for two years. Her brother Ashby long ago saw his dreams of a successful business career dashed by severe dyslexia. Now making his living as a shrimper, he is the only person in the family content in a relationship with Reese, a former football player. Everyone loves sister Claire except her husband, whom she has finally turned out after a loveless decade of marriage. Then there are the parents: Fielding Smallwood is a bitter, brutal man, an ex-marine whose command decision years earlier resulted in the death of seven young men in training, forcing him to leave the branch of service he loved. And Lena, the beloved matriarch of this family, has put up with Fielding only because she has long been having an affair with the Beaufort chief of police. Fielding and Lena make only brief appearances in the novel, but their presence is felt long after their untimely and highly suspicious deaths, one after the other.
Out of such tangled family ties, Hightower could have fashioned a black comedy instead of a suspense novel. However, what she has written has the lyrical quality of literature. She finds the poignancy of a family turned against itself in the stifling and frequently suffocating confines of a southern coastal tourist town. She concentrates not on the difficulties that separate these characters, but on the ways they are bound together and indelibly imprinted on each other, making their complicated lives seem entirely real. Hightower's use of flashbacks in which Georgie recalls some particular childhood memory elucidates Georgie's point of view, but also moves the story along, in the same way that the past always helps make sense of the present. The book does not sacrifice beauty of language to plot; the two serve each other well. Who would think a suspense thriller could be poetic?None of this comes as a surprise when one realizes that Hightower studied with the poet Wendell Berry at the University of Kentucky. The author of six previous novels, including Satan's Lambs, which won the Shamus Award for Best First P.I. Novel, Hightower's abilities as a storyteller are amply evident in this tale of a southern family united by one death and ripped apart by another. Bonnie Arant Ertelt is a writer living in Nashville.