Three generations of mother-daughter entanglements get sharp scrutiny in April Reynolds' lyrical debut novel, Knee-Deep in Wonder. Even more impressive, though, is the author's portrayal of Southern black life: Reynolds' characters are funny, memorable and complex, and she tells their stories with the ease of a trusted friend.

Helene Strickland returns home to Lafayette County, Arkansas, in 1976 for her aunt Annie b.'s funeral. At the same time, she wants to visit her mother, the now reclusive Queen Ester whom she's never really known. Simply put, Helene seeks "mother love, deep and dark as a carpet"; she also hopes to discover her father's identity.

The impending reunion is a jumping-off point from which Reynolds begins to peel back the years, exposing chunks of Strickland family history. Her focus, it turns out, is on Queen Ester's relationship with her mother, Liberty. These two women are locked in an emotionally stunted dependency, due primarily to Liberty's abandonment by both parents (and a lover). Things change fatefully after a young man, Chess, stumbles into Liberty's home-based cafŽ.

A surprisingly intriguing figure, Chess is a ladies' man whose womanizing disguises a sensitive streak his own need for the safety of mother love. When he appears at Liberty's doorstep, he's been on the run for 11 years. He's haunted by a flood, the murder of his father and a "want that tasted like loathing." The repercussions from a mother love that is skewed or denied altogether are portrayed in expansive and deliberate style. Reynolds, who teaches creative writing and literature at Sarah Lawrence College, sustains a compelling story and imbues her characters' lives with the richness they deserve. She is a writer to watch. Harold Parker writes from Gallatin, Tennessee.

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