It may sound pretty outrageous--kidnapping, pedophilia, skeletons in outhouses, fornication with ghosts, narration by hound dogs and bobcats--but Donald Harington's 12th novel, With, will surprise and delight you. Harington hails from the Ozarks and, in the tradition of William Faulkner and his invented Yoknapatawpha County, writes about a fictional backwater town called Stay More, Arkansas.

With begins from the point of view of Hreapha, a faithful dog who has had all she can take from her master, Sog Alan. She decides to run away, but before she can get very far, she finds herself drawn back to the long-abandoned mountain homestead to which Sog Alan seems to be moving all of his things. What Hreapha doesn't expect is that Sog is bringing a companion, albeit an unwilling one: a 7-year-old girl called Robin. The novel unfolds from varying perspectives Sog's, the dog's, Robin's and later that of a bunch of other animals, the funniest being one sly bobcat forever on the make. There's also the spirit--not quite a ghost, because the body it belongs to isn't dead--of a 12-year-old boy who once lived on the homestead and couldn't bear to leave entirely. He and Robin become playmates, and more, which is utterly believable in the context of the novel.

The bulk of the novel follows Robin as she matures from a frightened child snatched away from her mother into a self-sufficient, wild mountain woman surrounded by her animal friends and her invisible boyfriend. Harington's writing is at once playful and serious, tender, sexy, tragic, brutal and redemptive. In a tricky maneuver, he prevents the story from ever ending and makes it feel absolutely real by switching each narrative toward the end of the book from the past tense to the present, and then, when the time is right, to the future. Such a conceit might not work for every writer, but Harington does it with the same surefootedness he displays throughout the rest of the novel. He never falters, and you never doubt him for a second.

Becky Ohlsen writes infatuatedly from Portland, Oregon.

 

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