In Jeffrey Lent's lengthy but tautly plotted debut novel, three generations of a remarkably introspective New England family struggle with the social ambiguities and emotional conflicts of their complex heritage of interracial marriage and incest.
In the Fall begins during the Civil War. A wounded young Yankee soldier, unconscious and dying, is saved by a beautiful teenaged slave. Her act is especially courageous since she is fleeing for her life after apparently killing a white half-brother who assaulted her.
Love flames instantly; the soldier and his troubled beauty marry and walk to his family's Vermont farm, where his widowed mother, already feeling betrayed by his delayed homecoming, bleakly faces this exotic development. Thus is established the narrative pattern of In the Fall, a rhythm of filial betrayal and outsider romance. Time and again, the most affecting moments occur when a son or grandson reconciles with a mother, sister, or aunt abandoned at the homestead.
Suicide, isolation, self-destruction and murder plague the family, whose fate is implacably engineered by the sexual and racial secrets of unknown ancestors who created the slaveholding South. Only the lone survivor of the novel's third generation, a handsome lad raised as white in full ignorance of his family history, will discover the complete truth of ancient lusts, vengeance and cruelty.
Clearly, despite melodramatic revelations and violent deaths, In the Fall is not a naturalistic generational saga. Lent's characters speak in rarefied, elevated diction and move through their lives as gravely as figures on an urn; the effect lies somewhere between Henry James and Steven Spielberg. At the same time this gifted, somewhat eccentric writer not only describes but evokes the details and sensations of daily life. His frozen New England is as tangible on the page as his steamy, summery South.
Eloquent and deadly serious in intent, In the Fall will appeal most to readers attuned to nuanced relationships and slow dissections of the human heart, particularly if they agree with Lent that even his mountain of words cannot render with certainty the nature of guilt, anger or desire.
Charles Flowers, who lives in Purdys, New York, has received the Thomas R. Coward Prize for Fiction.