Bethany W. Pope’s (left) new novel is a riveting mixture of Southern Gothic and historical fiction. The writing is sumptuous, ripe with the senses of touch and smell, the elements of blood and desire. At its heart are two women, a mother who has lost her grasp on reality, and her daughter, half wild and passionate, who struggles to save them both from starving in a town abandoned by everyone else. Animate and inanimate entwine in the walls of the ruined manse ‘throbbing blood-veined’ with the voices of the women within. When the isolation of the house and the teenage girl’s vulnerability attract a rapacious settler and his vicious son, men hungering for domination, money, and violent sex, the stage is set for an apocalyptic confrontation between good and evil – which happens magnificently.
The prologue deftly sets the scene of swamplands and stink. Place comes first: Florida, 1910. Having consumed all its natural resources, a trading town is falling apart. Inside the sodden houses wallpapers, silks, leather armchairs sweat and disintegrate, while outside, coffins swell, freeing corpses to break the surface of fetid water. No one and nothing can escape the pervasive damp: even portraits and mirrors throw reflections clouded and darkened with mould.
But this is more than a Gothic novel about decaying houses. Pope is equally interested in exploring the significance of story in such disintegrating lives. Her characters are defined by the stories they tell – and retell – themselves. The mother desperately tries to retain what she was by reliving the past:
Editing her life into a shape that she can live with, a form she can handle. When she dreams this, dreaming awake, she does not feel her wracking coughs, nor see the mould spreading out across the walls like cancer. She does not notice her rotting bed clothes, or the slimy texture of her silks.
Joy, the daughter, places herself in another world by reading ancient Greek narratives in the original. Odysseus’s terrifying return home, battling monsters, witchcraft and the underworld, gives shape to her personal hungers and losses while the Iliad explores the ferocity of war between Greeks and Trojans illuminates the pathological struggle taking place around her. Such stories reveal the importance of boundaries in holding worlds fast. Surviving the extinction of their cultures of origin, their truth lies ‘on the line between the light and darkness, easy to distinguish, divisible, drawn out in a razor blade thin line of blood.’
The novel is packed with multiple modes and layers of narrative, each bringing its resonance. For example, Pope quotes, several times, from Yeats’s apocalyptic ‘Second Coming’. Yet she counters catastrophe with the elements of survival, even hope, found in the fairy contexts of the beautiful girl in rags, the skeletal mad mother, the handsome rescuer, the beasts as supernatural guardians. These elements are starting points, not clichés, woven together in strange and innovative patterns.
Her mythic villains are recognisable, defined by grotesque appetites without boundaries: the bloated Mrs Johnson hungers for elegant trinkets, her bullish husband craves profit and control. But the monstrosity of their son emerges from a different myth, one with demonic intensity.
From being a lumpish undeveloped figure, he is transformed to the blank and pitiless hybrid Yeats glimpsed emerging in the desert with the release of the ‘blood-dimmed tide’:
His eyes have grown a haunted look, deep set and wildly glittering, and his face seems, in this half light, to protrude like the muzzle of some implacable, perpetually hungry, desert dog.
Pope doesn’t stop here, with the mutation of man to beast. Should you read it you will encounter other stories, other transformations, and the miraculous possibilities of its brutal, extraordinary ending.
This is such a complex, absorbing, beautifully written novel. Do read it.
The Hungry and the Lost by Bethany W. Pope is available now, priced £10.99, published by Parthian. More here:
Bethany W. Pope is a British-American who currently lives in China. Pope’s work includes the poetry collections A Radiance, Undisturbed Circles and The Rag and Boneyard, and a novel entitled Masque.
Reviewer Dr Jeni Williams is a former senior lecturer at Trinity St David University, Wales.