Neverhome by Laird Hunt

Neverhome by Laird Hunt

Title: Neverhome 

Author: Laird Hunt 

Review by Rob Selby

Near the end of Laird Hunt’s previous novel, Kind One – shortlisted for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction – elderly Prosper travels south to Kentucky to visit the grave of his mother, a slave girl who died giving birth to him. It is 1930, seventy years since Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, but as Prosper moves through the same countryside in which Lincoln was born and grew up, where Indiana’s ‘barley and corn’ meet Kentucky’s ‘cotton and tobacco’, he feels the need to conceal his mixed race identity as best he can if he is to complete his pilgrimage untroubled.

Indiana, a state whose motto is ‘The Crossroads of America’, is thus a frontier between north and south, between being one thing and another. Neverhome, Hunt’s seventh novel and his first to be published in the UK, opens with another character who must conceal their true identity as they step out of Indiana. Farm wife Constance Thompson rechristens herself Ash, dresses up as a man, and walks into Ohio to enlist in the Union army, her ostensible motivation being to join the fight in the stead of her meek and infirm husband. Deep down, however, she desires adventure and to do battle against the intolerance that played a part in her mother’s suicide.

What unfolds is a fine novel by an author to whom UK readers should be better acquainted. Its structure, unlike its predecessor, does not resemble Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying: Ash’s story is not pieced together through the interior monologues of a group of characters but solely through her – we discover, unreliable – testimony. What is consistent with As I Lay Dying and Kind One is Neverhome’s convincing rendition (to this modern British reader at least) of the lyrical diction of the nineteenth-century, bible-schooled provincial American.

Magical realism

The first of the novel’s three parts culminates in the strategic Union victory at Antietam (which gave Lincoln the confidence to issue his proclamation) but is most memorable when describing the enemy: Confederate horsemen are ‘a beautiful thing to behold’ as they charge the Union line ‘like knights’; ‘if we’d been wearing the same colours,’ Ash says of the opposing firing line not forty yards distant, ‘you could have thought it was a mirror’. In part two, a dying ‘reb’ helps save Ash’s life, only for her own side to incarcerate her as a madwoman. As elements of magical realism already pervade the story, the delirium Ash suffers due to her mistreatment becomes a little monotonous, and sometimes overreaches: a vision of an army of cats licking battlefield corpses is an effective one, for example, but the felines then walking upright and carrying banners risks entering Disney territory.

Ash’s odyssey back to her Indiana farm, which closes out Neverhome, takes in an affecting metaphor – a ‘greenhouse made out of picture ghosts’, constructed as it is from glass plates formerly used in producing photographic portraits of Union recruits. Through these figures, then, a new America has been germinated, though it would be some time before folk like Prosper or Ash, so convincingly rendered by Hunt, could reap their fair share of the rewards.

By Rob Selby

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