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BOOK REVIEW

She searches for a place in the world

By Karen Campbell
April 20, 2009
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Rarely in this reviewer's memory has a debut novel emerged with such a profound sense of place as C.E. Morgan's "All the Living," a story about a young woman named Aloma and her grieving lover set on an isolated Kentucky tobacco farm in 1984. As the story unfolds, descriptions are so vivid, yet so integrated and organic, that the reader can almost feel the lassitude of stifling humid air, smell the rich, warm earth, and see the furrowed fields, the dark mountains in the distance.

The level of poetic detail makes "All the Living" a slow, seductive dive into another time and place, a deep, quiet place foreign to the frantic pace of contemporary urban life. "She studied the morning light as it forced itself through the pocked and splintered wood boards of the batten walls so that it shot through in silty bands of white like roughspun silk. It caught and lit the barn sediment as morning sun lights the mist and bugs that hover over the skin of a still river." Bam, we're there.

In sharp contrast is the dialogue. With its jarring grammatical lapses and rough syntax, each conversational exchange can be a tough slog for those with a keen ear for proper usage. However, Morgan, a native Kentuckian, gets the rhythms just right and makes graceful transitions.

But while the writing can be exquisite, the story line of "All the Living" is less affecting, though it has a subtle emotional pull. Less plot-driven than slow-moving reflection, it tracks a kind of coming of age. Aloma, raised as an orphan at a mission school cut into a deep cleavage of the Kentucky mountains, grew up in a "dark place, a dark county in a dark state" that made her yearn for the kind of day that couldn't be "recalled into premature darkness by the land." But what she learned at the settlement school, and eventually came to teach there, was how to play the piano, which offered her the sustenance of escapism and the dream to someday leave and make music in "the real world."

Orren Clay Fenton, an educated farm boy with blue eyes, an attentive manner, and an accommodating pickup truck, offers Aloma the promise of a lasting human connection and a ticket to a place where the sun shines hard and long. When Orren's mother and brother are killed in a tragic highway accident and Orren inherits the family farm, Aloma leaves the school behind and moves in with him. While he struggles to save his crops from a devastating summer drought, Aloma tries to find a useful place in Orren's life by cooking, cleaning, shopping, and feeding the chickens. But Orren's grief has left him hollowed and emotionally withdrawn. As Aloma tries to resurrect the vital young man she fell in love with, she grapples with growing doubts and a restless loneliness.

When Aloma realizes the one thing that might give her days some joy is playing the piano again, she heads into town and finds a church where she can practice piano in exchange for playing some of the Sunday services. The handsome young pastor, Bell Johnson, offers Aloma a sympathetic ear that both alleviates and feeds into her sense of disillusionment and isolation, making Aloma question her self-worth, her relationship with Orren, and her place in the world.

She finds herself torn between the two men, but frankly, neither is a prize, and it's a little hard to fathom the attraction. Both feel like settling for mutual need rather than true affinity. Orren, obsessed with the farm, driven by grief and survivor's guilt, has little energy left for interest in Aloma's fractured existence. Bell, who lives with his frail but domineering mother, is kind but arid. Neither seem like good matches for a woman who initially comes alive with passion, drive, and vision. It's disheartening to believe she wouldn't want to better herself, to escape an insular, entrenched world that seems to be slowly suffocating her. But as she comes to terms with the life she has chosen, we start to see that possibilities for change are not always wholesale. They can lie in something as simple as a drop of rain.

ALL THE LIVING
By C.E. Morgan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 200 pp., $23